The famous actor from New Zealand, Cliff Curtis, has earned fame through movies such as Once Were Warriors, Three Kings, Blow, Training Day, Whale Rider, Sunshine, Live Free or Die Hard, The Dark Horse. The Dark Horse won him the Best Performance by an Actor Award at the 2014 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. He also has several television roles to his credit, including NBC’s Trauma and ABC’s Body of Proof and Missing.
Whale Rider: A Critical and Commercial Success
Cliff Curtis is ethnically Maori, though he has essayed several character roles belonging to many ethnicities, such as Mestizo, Samoan, Indian, Arab, and Anglo-Saxon. The Whale Rider starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, and Cliff Curtis, is a mythic tale set in New Zealand. It won immense accolades from audiences at film festivals like San Francisco, Rotterdam, Toronto, and Sundance. All these three actors, despite belonging to different generations, are all Maori.
Curtis’ Role in the Movie
Cliff Curtis plays the role of Porourangi, Pai’s father, who is soon going to be chief. But he is eventually shown to be influenced by modernity, due to which he abandons Pai to her grandparents and moves to Europe to become an artist. The tribe is left to face a future solely dependent on a crusty grandfather and his charming granddaughter. Adapted from a novel by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, the movie catapulted Castle Hughes to immense popularity. Reviewers were all praises for his performance.
The Scene That Takes the Cake
One particular scene left a profound impact, in which Pai recites an award-winning essay before her student body in Maori. However, Koro, being still stubborn, resists Pai’s charms and leadership potential. Eventually, he refused to attend the ceremony, moving Pai to tears. The audience could barely hold back their tears when Pai looked over the crowd and one empty chair. Despite being tear-eyed, the best part was that she never fell short of determination, as she kept reciting the essay.
The actors were also witnessed such tearful reactions in several festival screenings. While speaking of Castle Hughes, who plays his daughter in the movie, Curtis stated that everyone would fall in love, which is strange since she is just a fictitious character on screen. He also added that the film allows people to feel things deeply and cry.
The Portrayal of the Maori Culture in the Movie
A significant chunk of the audience might have felt that Whale Rider was too otherworldly and exotic. Still, if you observe closely, you can feel the deeply embedded spirituality of the Maori culture, which is an integral part of their entity. Maoris place a lot of importance on such stories of ancient times about deities such as Lord Tangaroa (ruler of the ocean) and Tane (who rules over the earth). For them, these stories mean much more than bedside reading or campfire recitations.
Paratene, Castle-Hughes, and Cliff Curtis are actually descendants of Maoris, who went through mass emigration in the late 1950s and 1960s. They moved from their rural birthplaces and relocated to the urbanized centers of the country, particularly Auckland. These three actors are currently also residents of Auckland. According to popular culture, the Maoris were also actively dissuaded from retaining their heritage to prioritize cultural integration.
Cliff Curtis and His Maori Connect
Over the last few decades, several protest movements and a growing ethnic consciousness have led to Maori being offered in most public schools. Castle-Hughes learns Maori as a second language, while Paratene and Curtis experienced Maori as an integral part of their culture and spirituality at home, even though they technically did not learn Maori at school.
Cliff Curtis has mentioned in a media statement that he grew up in an environment where spirituality was centered around very unorthodox ideas. Even if Catholics or Mormons surrounded him, they would always conclude with a Maori chant, prayer, or some such pagan practice. No wonder he was very accustomed to the idea of a spiritual world.
A Gateway to Spirituality
Curtis has been associated with dramas set in New Zealand, such as Once Were Warriors and The Piano, besides playing heavy roles in several Hollywood flicks such as Collateral Damage. Media reports also suggest that he is quite fond of New Zealand’s Mokoia Island. It was here that the 12-year-old Curtis learned the long-stick ceremonies and drills of taiaha. It is this tradition that Pai secretly learns in the movie. Curtis was apparently trained by a legendary trainer called Mita Mohi, who, according to Paratene, is no less than a hero to generations. At the same time, to Cliff Curtis, he is another version of the Dalai Lama.
The Whale Rider gives audiences a closer look at renewed spirituality. It’s like a doorway to another culture and another world. Cliff Curtis has also stated that Maoris do not have an innate need to understand or articulate the concept of spirituality. For them, it is simply the feeling of being connected to nature. It is the essence of not being scared of life, rather live fully without feeling the need to control every element of it. For them, all that matters is this connection to the community and the planet they inhabit. Curtis strongly feels that it is this feeling that leaves an indelible impact on the audience.