Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s Tanna blends a fictional narrative loosely modeled on Romeo and Juliet with a docudramatic survey of the titular South Pacific Island and its people, the Yakel tribe. Watching the film, though, one wonders if a documentary on its making, elaborating on the contrasts of the ideologies that yielded its existence, would have been more enlightening.
Butler and Dean initially establish the rituals of the Yakel tribe with promising particularity. The film’s setting is a memorably green and leafy wooded portion of Tanna, presided over by a volcano that the Yakel have distinguished as a place of worship. Materials for clothes are hammered out on rocks, while mothers and daughters discuss the political textures of their lives. Shaman come to the volcano to preach of maturity to unruly youth, and lovers ascend the peak to consummate their affection, affording the filmmakers an opportunity to revel in fire as an obvious symbol for passion, though the fiery tableaus have a surreal majesty. Trees are photographed from the ground below, with the sun peeking in from above in a fashion that recalls the imagery of Terrence Malick’s recent films. And landscape shots featuring serrated mountains and craggy canyons suggest the “found” hallucinatory qualities of Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock, among others.
But there’s often a sense that the narrative and the setting are at odds with one another. Tanna is often reduced to a backdrop against which tribespeople talk, working out a negotiation in which Wawa (Marie Wawa) is to be traded to a rival tribe in exchange for a brokerage of peace, though the young woman is in love with another strapping warrior, Dain (Mungau Dain). Characters pontificate and argue, until it’s clear that a violent catharsis is inevitable, which the filmmakers presumably omit out of a fear of engendering excitement that might cast their travelogue in the light of exploitation. Soon, Wawa and Dain are on the run, spying in on other forms of religious worship; the spiritual torment and estrangement felt by them remains maddeningly vague throughout, as they seem to abandon their tribe on a whim, as if embarking on a weekend vacation. The protagonists are statuesque ciphers who move only in accordance with the mechanics of the plot.
Tanna is a tapestry of fleeting textures that desperately craves the idiosyncratic vision of Malick, Werner Herzog, or the Dennis Hopper who directed The Last Movie—filmmakers who consciously insert themselves into the cultures they explore for their art, risking the bad taste of filtering another world through the scrim of a privileged artist’s burden. Butler and Dean aren’t willing to straddle that sort of aesthetic line, yet they’ve come up with nothing in its place. The directors impersonally shoot the Yakel tribe with obliging literal-mindedness, apparently out of a gesture of respect that inadvertently and ironically curdles into condescension. The film blends the Bard with National Geographic, failing to make a case for the inexplicability of their union. It lacks the madness of soul or obsession.