The Silent One
Details: (G), 95 mins, New Zealand, English
Synopsis: A baby is washed up on a Pacific Island and is adopted by a childless woman. The tribal priest takes an instant dislike to the child, proclaiming him a demon. The child is deaf and mute and therefore excluded from hunting with the other young men. Out of loneliness, he befriends a white turtle. When a drought befalls the island, the priest blames the silent one. When the chief protects the boy, the priest plots the chiefs' downfall.
A mystical tale of a deaf boy, a white turtle and centuries-old Polynesian tribal customs, The Silent One was a startling debut for New Zealand’s first female feature director, Yvonne McKay.
Shot in 1983 on Aitutaki Island, Rarotonga, The Silent One is largely unknown outside its New Zealand homeland, where it holds a very special place in the hearts of the Maori and Pacific Islander population. The film’s representation of tribal life is honest and factual, yet played at a very cinematic pitch, which made it accessible to a wider audience. The Silent One was a major cross-over hit when released in its homeland, drawing ‘pakeha’ (white New Zealanders) into cinemas to experience this majestic adaptation of Joy Crowley’s novel.
A baby mysteriously arrives on the shores of a tropical island village and the settlement matriarch Luisa (Australasian acting legend Pat Evison) takes the child to her ample bosom. Though he grows into a strapping young man, Jonasi (Telo Malase) is an outcast – a deaf mute, remembered as the ‘child from the sea’ and viewed as evil incarnate by the village shaman, Paui Te Po (George Henare).
One lonely day whilst out on the stunning blue water of the surrounding reefs, Jonasi befriends a rare albino turtle. He shares much in common with the creature: the villagers regard it as a demon from the deep.
When the friendship is discovered by intolerant tribesfolk, Jonasi and his new friend cause a rift between the tribal elders (who recognise the spirituality of the pairing), and those that follow the misguided mysticism of Te Po.
McKay displays some audacious touches for a first-time filmmaker. She uses silence in point-of-view shots for Jonasi, reflecting the hearing-impaired isolation of her lead character, and in a sequence quite obviously shot before the tightening of child-actor labour laws, a cyclone impacts the coastal village with devastating effect; gigantic waves and gale-force winds hurl actors and scenery in all directions. It is an extraordinarily dangerous and mesmerising setpiece.
Most remarkable are the underwater sequences involving the turtle and Jonasi. Shot by Australian diving legends Ron and Valerie Taylor, they represent some of the most intimate meldings of man and creature I have seen on film. Not unlike the affinity for the ocean that Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2003) captured so perfectly, The Silent One encapsulates with profound effect, the native Islander’s soulful attachment to the life-giving force of the Big Blue. If The Silent One was shot today, it would be seen as a piece of greenie propaganda; in its day, it was a love letter to the wonders of the deep.
Scanning the credits, the film's assuredness seems less surprising – produced by New Zealand industry legend Dave Gibson (The Irrefutable Truth About Demons, 2000) and written by Ian Mune (director of the Once Were Warriors sequel What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, 1999), it was edited by Lord Of The Rings Oscar-winner Jamie Selkirk; 1st assistant director was Lee Tamahori (who would go on to direct Once Were Warriors and the James Bond flick Die Another Day).
Twenty-five years after its release, very little about the film has aged badly. The intrusive soundtrack, full of “feel this now!” strings and cute synthesiser riffs, is of the period, and some support acting wouldn’t cut it for a week's stint on Shortland Street nowadays. But the overall impact is undeniable – The Silent One is a rare example of an indigenous culture being honoured onscreen with respect, emotion and insight.
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