A Touching Portrait Of Love And Sacrifice: Our Review Of ‘Tanna’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - June 02, 2017
A Touching Portrait Of Love And Sacrifice: Our Review Of ‘Tanna’

On paper, Tanna shouldn’t succeed as a work of fictional drama: Tanna has a documentary film look, features a cast of non-actors, and sticks to a predictible Romeo and Juliet style love story template. Lucky for us, Tanna is a shining example of how art can transcend its artist’s limitations. Co-directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean travelled to the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu to recreate a tribal society’s haunting tale of love, loss, and sacrifice. Casting tribal villagers as dramatic actors may sound gimmicky but the end result is a film more captivating than much of the Hollywood drivel coursing through theatres.

The story follows the lives of two sisters, Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Selin (Marceline Rofit), as their village is only days away from ending an intertribal conflict. Selin is a rambunctious child who refuses to listen to her elders. She’s as likely to run off through a window as she is to help out with chores. Wawa, the elder of the two, is on the cusp of womanhood. Once Wawa becomes a woman, she’s to be married off to a neighbouring tribe as part of a peace treaty. The problem is that Wawa is already in love with the chief’s handsome young grandson, Dain (Mungau Dain). As tension mounts between the two tribes, Wawa and Dain’s secret romance threatens to break the tenuous alliance and spark an all-out war.

It’s incredible that Butler and Dean somehow managed to pull a film’s worth of competent performances from a cast of nonactors — we’re talking people that have never seen a camera or watched a film. The key word here is competent. If we’re grading on a curve which factors in relative skill level, then Tanna’s cast receives an A+. But, based on the quality of acting audiences expect in 2017, the cast’s lack of experience can work to the film’s detriment. At best, the performances aren’t distracting enough to take you out of the movie. More surprisingly, at their worst, the performances aren’t Mariah Carey Glitter-level bad either.

Butler and Dean lean heavily on the appeal of their two charming leads. Wawa’s smile shines with the wattage of a Hollywood Boulevard spotlight and Dain has leading man good looks for days. The onscreen couple nail their joyful moments together but their emotional range is limited. Fortunately for the actors, films are collaborative efforts and Butler and Dean know precisely how to supplement the film’s performances.

If Tanna’s shaky performances strike the viewer like a jab, then the cinematography and score are the uppercut, right hook combo that lands the devastating emotional blows. When everything is firing on all cylinders — the music, the cinematography, the dramatic tension — Tanna delivers some breathtaking sequences. Once the swelling score kicked in and the camera panned over the film’s intoxicating visuals, I became lost in cinematic bliss. While I didn’t find the film so affecting for its entire 104-minute run, Tanna’s emotional crescendos will undoubtedly rank among my year-end favourites.

Tanna’s cinematography captures the verdant South Pacific landscape in stunning detail. At times, the atmosphere is so immersive that you may feel the need to swat away the buzzing cicadas. While the jungle setting dominates most scenes, a volcano is the backdrop for the film’s standout moments. Several sequences shot on and around a volcano will leave you breathless. In one scene, the actors ascend the volcano as neon looking molten lava sends plumes of smoke and orange sparks shooting across the night sky. The volcanic backdrop serves as a majestic natural wonder. Despite the millions of dollars Michael Bay pours into his face-punching robots franchise, his CGI set pieces fail to capture the awe Tanna conveys as two lovers kiss on the edge of the volcano.

We go to the movies for countless reasons: to escape, to discover, to lose ourselves, and to marvel. Tanna delivers each of these experiences in one enthralling package. Tanna’s tale of forbidden romance may be familiar but its delivery method feels fresh. Rather than take me out of the movie, the cast’s raw performances drew me in deeper. It’s that strong senes of empathy for the characters that separates Tanna from other films. While most summer movies try to wow us with A-list actors and bombastic CGI action, Tanna opts to dazzles the viewer with emotional spectacle.

This post was written by

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).