Utu | Movie Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Set in the 1870s, this 1983 New Zealand film gets its title from a Maori word that's been variously translated as "revenge," "compensation," and "justice." Following the massacre of a village by British soldiers, a Maori named Te Wheke becomes a warrior, declaring, "I must kill the Pakeha [white man] to avenge what he has done. The spirits of my people command me." This sets off a classic guerrilla struggle, with a small band of Maori attacking a lone settler family and concentrations of British troops. The film avoids taking sides and instead highlights contradictions within the conflict: some Maori side with the British and Maori kill Maori in their own versions of utu. The cultural chasm between the two cultures is also explored, as when British soldiers are tricked into eating the meat of their fallen comrades--a prank the Maori find hilarious but whose humor is lost on a lieutenant. While Utu has a thematic resemblance to the American western--indigenous people fight lighter-skinned newcomers for their land--visually it couldn't be more different. New Zealand's more vertical and forested terrain calls for tightly framed imagery, and director Geoff Murphy organizes his film around clashes between individuals--each representing a different strain of his or her culture--rather than simply depicting a struggle for space. References to Macbeth cast the preordained result as a human tragedy. Until now, the film was previously available in the U.S. only in a butchered version with its chronology rearranged; this is the Chicago premiere of the director's cut. With Anzac Wallace, Bruno Lawrence, and Wi Kuki Kaa. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday and Thursday, July 23 and 25, 6:00, 443-3737.

--Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of long-haired man with gun, possibly Utu.

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