Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Insatiable Moon

Whilst New Zealand has become famous as a venue for making movies, its own film industry can hardly claim to be thriving. Success stories such as Eagle Vs Shark and Once Were Warriors remain few and far between. The star of another small scale Kiwi hit, Rawiri Paratene (Whale Rider) is the charismatic lead here, as The Insatiable Moon aims to add itself to the short list of triumphs.

Arthur (Paratene) is the self-proclaimed ‘Second Son of God’, an inhabitant of Harbour Lodge, a home for former psychiatric patients in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby. The neighbourhood is in the middle of a property boom, and as wealth seeps into the area, the residents begin to see the halfway house as a blight. Circumstances begin to conspire against Harbour Lodge: an overzealous estate agent is determined to purchase the property; a TV reporter cynically exploits their dilemma; hospital staff use experimental drugs on the inmates; and their community worker is hapless at best.

Initially, Arthur is oblivious to the gathering storm – he’s too busy in his quest to find the Queen of Heaven. He believes himself to have found her in the form of Margaret (Sara Wiseman), a woman whose marriage has hit a rocky patch as she and her husband try unsuccessfully for a baby. As her relationship flounders, Arthur offers a warmth and spirituality which is otherwise missing…

The movie begins with a wonderful montage. The opening shot sees Arthur’s handsome face bathed in sunshine as he sings in Maori. It’s a stunning image, and is quickly followed by a series of wide angled shots depicting Ponsonby. These are all awash with colour and are often humorous – one scene depicts a homeless man smelling his own flatulence. It’s an opening which clearly signposts the mixture of humour, spirituality and drama which characterises the film.

The star of the film is undoubtedly Arthur. Rawiri Paratene is a charismatic and engaging presence. His friendly, sparkling eyes are almost all that’s visible of his face, peering out from his black beard to light up the screen. And it’s thoroughly refreshing that Paratene’s depiction needs not lapse into cliché or caricature. There are no tics or contrivances – indeed, it’s unclear as to whether Arthur is mentally ill or whether he really can hear the voice of God in his head. It’s a brave move on behalf of all concerned, and they pull it off with aplomb – Arthur clearly believes in his religious parentage, and it’s hard not to buy into his claims.

Unfortunately, the warmth and subtlety of Paratene’s performance is not mirrored throughout the rest of the film. At times, the plot is unbelievably clumsy – bordering on comedic parody. The TV reports which depict life in the boarding house are appalling in every sense. They’re shown via televisions within the mise-en-scene and look unconvincing, but worse still is the script. Although New Zealanders are pretty straight talking folks, it’s hard to believe that they would allow such obnoxious and unsympathetic broadcasts to be aired. The language used is (at best) politically incorrect and the aggression shown towards the disadvantaged residents is horrifying. Perhaps this was done for effect, but it’s both galling and unrealistic.

Salty language and bluff characters have been depicted well, however. As the boarding house owner, Bob, Greg Johnson gives a really engaging performance. His affection for his residents means he’s brusque and unapologetic in his defence of them – yet this is tempered by his obvious love. Two scenes stand out: a sweary dismissal of a slimy estate agent and a heartfelt eulogy given at a resident’s funeral.

That the characters and dialogue are so inconsistent is indicative of The Insatiable Moon’s main problem: it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. At times, it’s a romance; at others, a knockabout comedy. It wears its social conscience firmly on its sleeve, but occasionally undermines its own message. It’s perfectly possible to weave such strands into a cohesive and stylish narrative – but, sadly, director Rosemary Riddell doesn’t quite pull it off here.

When the film really does work, however, it’s usually Arthur at the centre of it. One wonderful scene set during his friend’s funeral is particularly beautiful and touching. John was an elderly paedophile who took his own life after almost submitting to the temptation to return to his former crimes. When the mother of one of his victims stands in the church to make her bitter feelings towards him know, Arthur immediately takes control of the situation, delivering an inclusive eulogy which affects the emotions of all concerned: not least as he implores them to “Let my word stand for him, and take him to your heart.” It’s a lovely moment – regardless of whether he truly is the son of God or not.

As a character study, The Insatiable Moon is an engaging movie. Arthur is an enigmatic and charming character – and Paratene is a captivating screen presence. Sadly, one character does not a good film make. Overall, the film is far too inconsistent and clumsily made to really work. The action swings wildly between various storylines without ever really finding its true focus, meaning that the political and social points it attempts to make lose the impact they might have had in a more focused, tighter production.

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