Similar to last year’s exceptional Waru, One Thousand Ropes deals with the intergenerational trauma of domestic abuse in New Zealand’s most disadvantaged groups without glossing over facts or showing gratuitous violence. While the former followed a Māori funeral, the latter focuses on Maea, a Samoan migrant baker and midwife who uses his skills to help women after he abused his (now absent, possibly dead) wife. When his pregnant and battered daughter Ilisa takes refuge with him, the wandering soul who shares his house threatens to destroy their lives – a brilliant touch of magical realism that foregrounds the mental peril of Maea’s and Ilisa’s inner demons.
Tusi Tamasese’s sparse script allows long, silent shots where the camera lingers over his characters as they process grief, shame, and fear in brutal sequences. Uelese Petaia carries the brunt of this emotional labour, conveying Maea’s overwhelming guilt with a quiet pragmatism as he tries to do the most good with the life he has left. His redemptive efforts are remarkably undemonstrative, but when circumstances require they can be viscerally stomach-churning.
The film’s opening scene bears special mention: while Maea cleans and wraps a newly born baby, the camera focuses on the mother’s taught lips and tear-filled eyes. Her fear and anger are palpable, and Maea – however soothing and skilled he may be at postnatal care – cannot change her life circumstances. While Maea’s crimes have not been mentioned, it becomes clear that – no matter how much love the mother and baby receive – the socioeconomic systems of inequality that perpetuate such misery cannot be fixed by one personal transformation.
One Thousand Ropes lays its demons to rest with dignity, refusing to sell salacious details or excuse past behaviours. Its elements of magical realism drive home the long-lasting scars left by cycles of abuse without devolving into sentimentality.
CAST: Frankie Adams, Uelese Petaia, Sima Urale
DIRECTOR: Tusi Tamasese
WRITER: Tusi Tamasese
SYNOPSIS: A midwife and baker tries to expunge his guilt over past domestic violence when his heavily beaten pregnant daughter moves back in.