Review: ‘Tanna’ shows the urge to love is universal

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“Tanna” is unlike any film you’ve seen, an unlikely yet thoroughly successful blending of National Geographic photography, Shakespearean romance and true-story tragedy.

The setting is the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, in a village called Yakel. This is an island of maybe 30,000 people, most of whom still wear grass skirts or sheaths, who live in deep forests and worship the island’s volcano. The movie stars people from Yakel who likely have little or no idea what film is (there certainly aren’t any cineplexes or televisions around; or electricity, for that matter).

Yet writer-directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler convinced the tribe members to act out a true Romeo and Juliet-like story that changed the island’s culture a few decades back. And the performances here, from complete nonprofessionals, make you wonder whether acting is as much a natural inheritance as a trained craft.

The story is timeless, and relevant in too many places. Wawa (Marie Wawa) is just entering adulthood and destined for an arranged marriage, just like all women on the island. But she has already fallen for Dain (Mungau Dain), the son of the village chief. Dain also has eyes for her, but the only person who knows any of this is Wawa’s rebellious, spirited younger sister, Selin (Marceline Rofit).

When Selin takes a trip to the island’s volcano with her grandfather (Albi Nangia), the tribe’s shaman, they are attacked by two members of a neighboring tribe, who blame the shaman for spoiling their crops. This results in a peace summit where the Yakel’s chief promises Wawa to the neighboring tribe as a bride. But Wawa and Dain have other ideas.

The scenery here is both lush and stark and the movie might be worth seeing for the cinematography alone. But the spirit of the Yakel actors — especially Wawa and Dain, but Rofit as well — is what elevates the film into something special. We all hear every day that love is universal; this film is proof positive.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

Twitter: @toomuchTomLong



Not rated

Running time: 100 minutes