Tanna transplants Romeo and Juliet to the South Pacific

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      Starring Marie Wawa. In Nauvhal, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      A fascinating ethnographic study more than it is a conventionally satisfying movie, Tanna unfolds entirely in Nauvhal, a language spoken by Melanesians in Vanuatu, a South Pacific archipelago remote enough that locals have so far managed to avoid total absorption by outer cultures.

      The film was nominally written and directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, Australian docmakers making the transition to features. Their most significant undertaking was living with Yakel villagers of the title island for seven months, gaining their trust and learning regional lore while finding nonprofessionals capable of handling on-camera chores unselfconsciously. In the end, they went with a Romeo and Juliet–type tale of forbidden love, explicating enduring taboos, tribal politics, and spiritual beliefs along the way.

      Basically, things turn on teenage Wawa (Marie Wawa), who’s about to be initiated into adulthood when she falls for handsome Dain (Mungau Dain), Yakel royalty still smarting over losing his parents to rivals called the Imedin. Things get worse when a Yakel shaman is attacked by Imedin, threatening not only their security but their repository of kastom—the knowledge of traditional ways.

      Wawa was already an unlikely match for Dain (should we mention that he appears to be twice her age?) before the current chief promises her hand to an Imedin man, in order to facilitate peace between bands. A worthy cause, but this does little to ameliorate the lovers’ personal pain, so they make a run for it.

      Turns out that people of all types can be petty, vindictive, and short-sighted. The human foreground isn’t always that interesting, but the natural backdrop here is truly amazing. The filmmakers’ best gambit was to tell most of the story through the eyes of Wawa’s impish little sister (Marceline Rofit), keeping the camera—also wielded by Dean—low to the ground in lush rain forests and full of unforgiving sky on volcanic mountainsides. A soundtrack featuring Lisa Gerrard’s haunted vocals is another plus.