The Tulafale (The Orator): A Critical Review - Part III

III.  DID NOT DELIVER in the END  (Ua le o gatasi le futia ma le umele.)

To use a movie-based idiom, let me "cut to the chase."  The lauga (oration/speech) in the end by Saili (Leopa’o) is a dud.
The title of a movie - or any other product of artistic expression for that matter - is its first disclosure and giveaway. In the case of Tulafale, it is unambiguous. The main subtext in Tulafale is traditional oratory, which is an integral and relatively unique part of Samoan society. Therefore the movie cannot be about an orator but without his craft being showcased and demonstrated, even in maybe a supplemental and supportive role. Moreover, the Tulafale’s character arc is driven by traditional oratory and the success of Saili’s goal of getting his loved ones buried near his home rests mainly, if not entirely, on it.

Unfortunately, the speech lacks style, depth, wit and/or other memorable verbiage and elements. It is dull and monotonous - not that all great speeches should be lively unpretentious and incitive. But for Tulafale, there are certain expectations of the speech that are fostered and advanced by the storyline, plot and characterization (re: Saili’s reticence) which the average viewer feels are not met or well delivered.

The speech should be more profound and memorable. It should have a “wow” factor, at least a catchphrase or a deep philosophical quote to make the speech - hence the movie - a lingering treat. Some great movies are remembered and favored because of memorable phrases, and I was looking for that in the speech, something that transcends race, culture and ethnic demographics. For example, Saili could have said something like: “Poto, e laititi lo’u tino, ae tele lo’u fatu.” (“I have a small body but a much bigger heart,”) or other variants such as "Oute pu'upu'u ae umi lo'u fatu, e umi atu nai lo le to'oto'o," ("I may be short, but my heart is tall, taller than this staff"); "E tele atu lo'u fatu nai lo lo'u tino." ("My heart is bigger than my body").  And then find similar memorable expressions for death like "Tatou te ola ina ia tatou oti, tatou te oti foi ina ia tatou toe ola," ("We live to die, but we also die to live again")

Samoan oratory is replete with flowery expressions and Tulafale should take advantage of such a resource for speech embellishment. Saili  does  flirt with this notion especially in the treatise of his conversance with death, including birds and worms, but a lot of it is banal and forgettable.  It does not quite capture the degree of what I would personally call “indelibility through profundity.”  Saili's metaphorical request for Vaaiga to be buried between his heart and lungs is too cliched, denying and negating his own mortality.

Death is a universal subject and Samoan oratory contains idioms, expressions, metaphors, etc. which, though local in origin, context and/or source, can still render and delineate universal nuances. As someone who understands the pragmatic role of traditional oratory in Samoan life, I was looking forward to a powerful and silver-tongued lauga as the protagonist’s main weapon in achieving his objective; however, for me, it did not deliver nor impress.

Moreover, I think the character arc should have been actualized and enhanced by some noticeable or even dramatic changes in the protagonist, besides his new chiefly title. He has been mostly reticent - not passively quiet as claimed - throughout the movie, but the climactic events should endow him with aggressiveness, passion, eloquence and wisdom.  Saili should also avoid acknowledging his own insecurities - at least to advance the change and growth in the character arc - notably when he said he is ashamed of himself.  Instead of being apologetic and rueful, he should be more aggressive, determined, firm and articulate in the latter parts of the movie.

The speech (delivery, intonation, etc.,) should also reflect the change of inner strength and vigor. Even a changed, compelling, persuasive and deeper voice certainly helps. In fact a dramatic transformation in oratorical skills is not farfetched in Samoa where the continuing tofa and moe (dialog and tutoring by the dead, especially past orators) are intrinsic in Samoan beliefs, lore and myths.

All these should serve as the standard and template for the speech unless Saili is cast as a different and rare type of tulafale - soft spoken and softhearted. But that however presents another irony especially when Saili cries during the oration.  According to the movie, women do not become orators because they don’t want their breasts exposed; conversely then, men should not be tulafales either if they are crybabies.

So, figuratively speaking, does the umele (back end of the bonito fishing pole) connect well with the futia (receiver /pouch made of sennit) in Tulafale?  I’ve made my call; you make yours.

Again the lauga, perhaps the main and critical component and event in Tulafale, falls short of being the fitting complement to the ambitiousness and convoluted sophistication of the movie.

All in all, I still tip my hat off to Mr. Tamasese. He has raised Samoan filmmaking to a whole new level! Malo le taumafai! Malo le tauataa’i! Malo fo’i le fai o le faiva!  Keep up the great work!


PS: I hope Sundance does not indulge in its more liberal leanings and squelch Tulafale because of its religious/Christian images and overtones.


  1. Surfed into this blog and I enjoyed reading your breakdown of Leopau's lauga. Even though the lauga could have been better I still enjoyed the movie and think the end of the movie was awesome

  2. This analysis of the film is a dud. You've gone off on a tangent and totally confused yourself. The film's overriding theme is simple - it is about overcoming your fears. Overcoming the obstacles one faces in life. Tamasese expresses this theme through the main plot - a guy who is underestimated and largely put down by others in his village so much that even he underestimates himself. His wife pleads with him (when she is alive) to stand up for himself and his family. She shows her strength and self-belief by standing up to her own family and refusing to return to her village. Also implied is her strength in fighting for her child to live after an implied scandal that is left unsaid. However, it is only after she dies that he gathers up the courage to cast aside his self-doubt and rise to his potential.

    A secondary theme in the movie is death and the mortality of life. It opens with him sitting on his parents grave and during the movie there are subtle hints at the mortality of life (eg: (1) the advanced years of the sa'o (Tagaloa) and his family already making plans for his successor, (2) the si'i at a funeral in the village, where orators talk of where to bury the deceased, (3) the slow demise of Vaaiga, who gets weaker and weaker as the movie progresses).

    The secondary theme ties in well with the primary theme in that: 'life is too short and death is too certain to underestimate oneself. Summon up the courage to overcome your fears in this life otherwise death will overtake you and your life will end in regret and lost opportunities'.

    The lauga at the end was the highlight of the film. Beseeching his wife's family to return her to him, where he will 'bury her between my heart and my lungs'. It is a beautiful metaphor for a husband's duty to his wife and his duty to his family. The English translation didn't do it justice, but I can tell you now that many Samoans in the packed theatres in South Auckland were in tears at the emotional impact of the final lauga. It was a excellent portrayal of the beauty of Samoan oratory. The beauty of this film is that the story is woven together by what is said and what is left unsaid. A metaphor in itself for life and Samoan society in general.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with your take on the theme. However, the same theme is hindered and muffled by an aberrant tulafale (orator) as the protagonist. Hence the evolving aspects of plot, structure and characterization, placed against the backdrop and blueprint of a typical Samoan tulafale, render Saili a weak protagonist, which, in turn, weakens the movie’’s overall plaudits and message. Also, within the Samoan context, Saili, as an arriviste, becomes more of a foil to his other fellow tulafales (Poto, Tagaloa, etc.) and is therefore viewed as weaker still. Saili may have overcome his fears, but as a social offspring (being Samoan and a tulafale), his refiner’’s fire is more from without than within, culminating in, and overcome by, performing the tulafale’’s official duty of failauga (speech-giving). And this is where the lauga (oration) becomes critical.

      The lauga is, and should be, more than just a "highlight of the film." Traditionally, the lauga (which includes soalaupulega, faafaletuiga and other traditional deliberations) in its broader context represents an integral part of the faa-Samoa. The lauga transcends the basic and everyday social relationships and interaction within Samoan society. The lauga soothes; it invokes laughter and lightheartedness; it cures and it heals; it resolves; it restores; it mediates and adjudicates and it mends and reconciles. The lauga is the antidote to most conflicts and contentions some of which may involve criminal and fatal consequences. And a prominent tulafale is defined by his oratorical skills and his use of the chiefly jargon and expressions.

      Therefore the final oration, preempted by the title, plot and storyline - among other elements - is a setback to Saili’’s ““rise to his potential,”” and thus has been the focus of my review. Again, Saili’’s lauga is his main, if not his only weapon in realizing his main objectives - getting his parents disinterred and Vaaiga back and buried in front of their home. Now, structurally, these would still have been accomplished despite the type of lauga Saili delivers, but critically, the movie suffers because of mediocrity in its denouement.

      And therefore, since the lauga did not live up to the crescendo created by the plot and story, I feel Saili’’s ““victory”” in the end, instead, is due more to sympathy than demonstrable submission of the antagonists and serious convincement of the audience. It’’s the sympathy consigned more by the stigma associated with Saili’’s physical handicap than from his social and personal trials.

  3. Happy that i came across this site and thank you for the materials you have included on this page which will no doubt be of great help to a lot of our young people looking to learn more about our beautiful culture.
    I tend to agree with the above review, that's not to take anything away from the movie we all loved it. Im guessing the reviewers thoughts were influenced by his/her understanding of the gagana faamatai. For me, i felt the final lauga should of had more "punches" than "o le a teu i le va o lou fatu".For example, the opening lines or folasaga should have been such that drew peoples attention then gradually build towards the final comments and climax of "teu i le va o lo'u fatu" etc. Nonetheless, it was a good movie.

    1. thanks anon!
      ...again, Tulafale is definitely an avant garde movie, and deserves all its accolades. Personally, however, as a Samoan, I would have loved to see a powerful lauga, one that conveys strength, courage, endurance, charisma and evolution/growth of the main character, as well as one that is indicative of his chiefly title "Leopa'o" ("voice that makes a lot of noise" - i.e. one that is articulate and eloquent). Manuia fo'i!

  4. faafetai mole faasoa a uso I le tulaga o le movie tulafale. o samoa a matagofie se taumafaiga a se tasi e taumafai le isi samoa e faailo ona lagona. e muamua aumai lona atamai ona teuteu mulimuli lea ma faafetai le matagofie ose mea. fai mai upu masani a le tatou atunuu, e leai se manatu e vale. o le manatu o ma&#39 o loo feagai le movie ma faaupuga ma faatinoga. ao le manatu o lv e mafu le lauga sa tatau ona tuutuu le upega i le loloto. ae faigata e talalasi samoa,