"It's a very ambitious effort with convoluted sophistication which unfortunately did not deliver - literally and figuratively - in the end."
The truth is that most Samoans, understandably, like the movie. I do too. And why not? We all enjoy watching Samoa - its culture, the inland village setting, traditional oratory, native actors and language - on the big screen. Simply, it's an accomplishment worthy of celebration and admiration. But there's more to a movie - and movie making - than being able to identify oneself culturally and ethnically with it. And esteeming such appetites over the more pervasive fundamentals of movie-making, will likely encourage insular - if not ethnocentric -attitudes.
I know I'm playing the role of a semi-devil's advocate (ioe, e le o se advocate akoa, ae o le 'afa advocate, ia poo se ‘afa avocado fo'i) but we sometimes need to get out of our comfort zones - mostly as Samoans watching a Samoan-made movie - in order to see things a bit clearer and from a different and informed perspective.
My trilogical review is based on the emphasized parts of the premise (at the top).
I. AMBITIOUS EFFORT (Ua sausau fia lele le manu nai Utufiu.)
The Tulafale (The Orator), hereafter referred to as "Tulafale", is an ambitious - if not overambitious - effort. Now that's as neutral - though slightly more complimentary - as any critic will say. Tulafale, after all, is the first exclusively Samoan movie (language, actors, setting, storyline, etc.) to garner international repute and accolades.
Considering that Samoa's movie making venture is still in incubation stage, Tulafale is ambitious in the sense that it dives into this incognito status, and still comes up relatively meritorious. Could its packaging and promotion as a New Zealand film be the reason - or one of the reasons - for Tulafale's success? Maybe, but the movie definitely has its own merits and credits (pun intended).
Tulafale is also ambitious through its audaciousness. Generally, the movie's audacity is reflected in its socio-cultural correctness, especially from its native audience standpoint. For example, one of the movie's main characters, Tagaloa, represents someone close to a social madcap. His dictatorial and derisive disposition is an aberration within a matai (chief) and family relationship, and Tagaloa's public disrobement is ultra daring within the Samoan cultural context of faaaloalo (respect) and mamalu (honor/dignity). Tagaloa however represents an atypical matai who displays a fiaulavale (foolhardy) attitude though bordering on dementia whose early symptoms are evident in his overall demeanor.
Suspension of disbelief is a normal antidote to audacity in movies. Ironically, in Tulafale, it's the native audience (Samoans) that needs it more than outsiders/foreigners, especially relative to familiarity with social and cultural correctness issues. Some of these are exploited in the movie, whether it's time period conflicts, treatment of the dead (corpse) or detours and deviations in standard cultural traditions and protocols. I believe, however, that the excitement among the Samoans in the accomplishments of Tulafale may help sustain the suspension of disbelief and/or acquiescence. For foreigners, acceptance is more from apathy - viewing cultural depictions and seeming oddities as societal norms - than from willing suspension of disbelief.
Other utilized movie conventions also make Tulafale effectively ambitious. With a cast of local amateur actors, the movie has made some baby steps and infant strides. Moreover, the use of the local vernacular in and of itself is ambitious. The English translations and subtitles therefore present some challenges for the movie in getting its message across to a more cosmopolitan audience. The essence and meaning in the original language are sometimes lost and/or distorted. I’ve noticed some inconsistencies with respect to some translation issues. For example, Leopao, the correct spelling of Saili’s title, is sometimes rendered as Leapao in the subtitles which effectively undermines and robs the correct name of its symbolic meaning of “noisy voice” which has direct significance to the movie’s oratorical subtext.
Overall, however, Tulafale has prevailed in the minimum threshold of ambitiousness through its intrepid venture into uncharted waters of film-making. In other words, the bird at Utufiu is not only eager to soar, it is already flying, albeit low, so far.