Ten Canoes

Starring: Crusoe Kurddal, Jamie Gulpilil, Richard Birrinbirrin, Peter Djigirr, Peter Minygululu, Frances Djulibing, David Gulpilil, Johnny Buniyira. Directed by Rolf de Heer. 90 min. Not rated.

Ten Canoes is a story about the telling of a story, which, in turn, is being told to us. The unseen narrator begins the tale with a spirited “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” before cackling with laughter and telling us, “No, not really” — even though the film does take place in a land which, for most viewers, is as far away from modern consciousness as one can get: aboriginal Australia. But while the beliefs, customs and settings may be foreign and mysterious, it is not hard for anyone living in the industrialized world of the 21st century to see themselves in director Rolf de Heer’s rare vision of an ancient tribal society. After all, the moral of the fable being related here is straight out of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. More than that, though, Ten Canoes speaks to the universal significance of tradition in all cultures. It is a paean to storytelling as a means of communication throughout history, whether oral or cinematic.

We are first introduced to a ten-man hunting party, venturing into the forest of northern Australia to gather goose eggs. The narrator informs us that one of the men, Dayindi, desires the youngest wife of his older brother, Minygululu. When he learns of this, Minygululu begins to relate a cautionary legend about two brothers from a small tribe caught in a similar situation. The cinematography switches from rich black-and-white to lush color, as we are transported back some thousand years (although without the palette change, it would be impossible to tell) and treated to a story that is alternately poignant, melancholy and, more often than not, funny, with an ironic ending that says as much about the travails of polygamist relationships as Woody Allen says about monogamous ones.

The myth takes days for Minygululu to tell, and the youthful Dayindi eventually grows impatient. Indeed, the film itself moves at a pace which challenges the audience’s own ability to sit and listen — at one point, the narrator even acknowledges that we might be getting restless. But Ten Canoes is not a chore to watch. De Heer fills the screen with remarkable images of the outback, and the faces of the actors — all from various parts of Australia’s Northern Territory and speaking indigenous dialects — are sights onto themselves, etched with centuries of shared knowledge and experiences.

This is not, however, a detached anthropological documentary of the kind you might see on Discovery Channel or something. The camera takes us inside both the tribe and the hunting party, and the characters become knowable. And, once you’re able to get past the fact that everyone is walking around naked, they become relatable. Because envy and the desire to break the social order are themes that span generations and transcend language. Plus, there are enough jokes about bodily functions, human excrement and the size of male genitalia to prove bathroom humor did not begin with the Farrelly Brothers — or even the concept of bathrooms.