The sight of kids joyously playing with a “penis sheath” is enough to make Tanna recommendable, but fortunately, there’s also far more to Bentley Dean and Martin Butler’s ethnographic drama, which was filmed on – and stars natives of – the South Pacific island that gives the film its title. Awash in natural light that gently cascades over the area’s dense foliage, as well as in portentous darkness illuminated by a volcano’s sparkling bursts of lava, Tanna charts the fallout from the romance that blossoms between young Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain).
Their desire to be together is thwarted by their elders’ plan to achieve peace with murderous enemies by arranging a marriage between Wawa and this adversarial clan. It’s a set-up almost as old as time itself, and yet Dean and Butler breathe new life into their premise – based on real-life circumstances that plagued Tanna’s tribes in the ‘80s – through loving attentiveness to their setting’s verdant colors and bustling sounds. Subtly visualizing the connection shared between the land and its people (and their interior conditions), Tanna proves rich in both sociological detail and roiling emotions. Its gorgeous close-ups of its non-professional actors’ faces capture an immediate, poignant sense of true love’s inextinguishable, transformative power, even when pitted against cultural customs poised to suppress it.
Directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler
Opesn September 16, Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center