Small in stature and humble, Saili (Fiaula Sanote) lives a simple life with his beloved wife and daughter in an isolated, traditional village in the islands of Samoa. Forced to protect his land and family, Saili must face his fears and seek the right to speak up for those he loves.

The Orator is the first-ever Samoan language feature film and will represent New Zealand in the Foreign Language Film category at the 2012 Academy Awards.

Samoan debut speaks volumes.

Tusi Tamasese’s debut film The Orator is a challenging work that revels in its own centred stillness; constructed with such a graceful lack of pretense that at times, it almost seems becalmed, Samoa’s first full-length feature film may test the endurance of even the most devout arthouse audiences.

The gentle, rhythmic narrative of a man’s complex relationship within an ancient culture will reward the patience of those it entrances; so too the exquisite cinematography of veteran lensman Leon Narbey (Whale Rider; Dean Spanley) and the central performance by small-person first-time-actor Fa’afiaula Sagote. While his halting gait, minute stature and granite-like features immediately signify him as an outsider in this world of giant men, Sagote’s physical limitations coalesce into a deeply spiritual, highly emotional whole. His Best Actor nomination at this year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards is thoroughly deserved.

Sagote plays Saili, a village outcast left alone after the passing of his parents, whose gravesites he tends to regularly. He has wed Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj), a fellow outcast, estranged from her parents; with her resentful teenage daughter Litia (Salamasina Mataia), the family unit lives a simple life on the outskirts of a village deep within the jungles of the island of Upolo.

Vaaiga’s brother Poto (Ioata Tanielu) arrives unexpectedly, with her full family in tow, demanding she return to the fold. Saili’s world undergoes immense change in a short period of time and he is forced to stand his ground to save what has come to be most precious to him.

The 'underdog’ components of Tamasese’s script could have allowed for saccharine clichés to creep into Saili’s plight, and there are moments when tropes familiar to western audiences threaten to simplify the film’s arc (a stand-off against heavies farming yams on Saili’s sacred ground seems perfunctory; comedy bits involving the local Rugby team are cute but superfluous); the film’s poster tagline, 'The strongest voice comes from the heart", suggests an influential heavy-hand was not far away. But sentimentality is handled with a truthfulness that never allows it to spill over into the maudlin; when tears flow in The Orator, they do so from a place of honesty and insight and not manipulation.

In Samoan culture, oration is a means by which feuding chiefs settle disputes. Gentle wordplay is used as ancients may have used spears and swords; the great tribal minds now engage in respectful conversations, utilising their native language to find common ground. Tamasese’s faith in his film’s long silences, the predominant factor of the first and second acts of his screenplay, is rewarded in the film’s finale, when Saili must speak like the great Chief Orators of legend. His words, defining his deep devotion and sense of duty to his wife, are delivered beautifully by Sagote. Despite the remote setting and unfamiliar customs, the clarity of Tusi Tamasese’s human drama makes The Orator universally relatable.

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1 min
In Cinemas 17 November 2011,
Thu, 02/16/2012 - 11