Te Absolvo a Peccatis Tuis
Pat, simplified and obvious, stark and a tad unusual in its use of expository drawings and songs, derivative and evocative of 1950s Westerns, The Tracker is a concentrated and wonderful movie. Derived from director Rolf de Heer's shelved treatment written in a single day ten years ago, this fine film was commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2002.
One of the first countries to produce a fiction feature (The Early Christian Martyrs, 1899), to make something longer than a one-reeler (The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906) and to acquire sound equipment, relatively prolific Australia nevertheless was long more known for swimmers, distance runners, tennis players and documentaries. Internationally distributed works like On the Beach and The Sundowners were done under US or British creative control, and, despite official subsidies through the Australian Film Development Corporation and Film Australia, excellent works such as Walkabout and the searing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith passed under public radar. More lately, the national film industry has shown encouraging signs of awakening and begun to emerge from the '80s pigeonhole of war, apocalyptic future action and macho outback comedies and to display admirable sensitivity and a consciousness of the country's racist sins -- as half-caste Jimmie Blacksmith learns on Federation in 1901, "You'll still have the same rights -- none."
De Heer's newest effort goes far toward solidifying the newfound respect for Australian films.
1922. The arid southern outback (filmed near the upper Flinders Ranges above Adelaide). To fourteen explanatory primitive drawings by landscape painter Peter Coad and Bob Marleyesque lyrics (by de Heer) sung raspily by Indigenous musician Archie Roach, three whites hunt the seldom-glimpsed native Fugitive (Noel Wilton), innocent but accused of killing a white woman. Taciturn -- "it didn't involve a lot of talking" -- they are Everymen: the racist Fanatic (Gary Sweet) who twists duty and the White Man's Burden to his psychotic cruelty; the young ukulele-playing Follower (Damon Gameau), "new to the frontier," appalled by brutality and unformed enough to learn; and the drafted Veteran (Grant Page), who suppresses his natural conscience and is therefore doomed.
One of the background songs emphasizes "contradictions," and, as leader, the Fanatic harps on mutiny yet willfully drives all about him as if seeking their insubordination. The prey constantly a half-day in advance of them, their full-blooded Aborigine Tracker avoids capturing him, has his own agenda, and observes that they, rather, are half a day behind. This Tracker plays Aussie Stepin Fetchit but quotes Latin ritual and slowly reveals his bicultural dignity as he piece by piece sheds the accoutrements of Europe's clothing. With impish expressive eyes, an ambiguous grin and wavy hair that out-glories Richard Gere's, he is David Gulpilil.
An Aborigine who lives with "his people," a didgeridoo expert, originally a dancer and still touring as such, he started as lead in Nicholas Roeg's 1969 solo directorial début Walkabout and has gone on to many other films (including the non-US-released documentary, Gulpilil -- One Red Blood), and he is marvelous here. His Tracker is free in spite of virtual servitude -- there is a fourth (pack) horse, but the black scout-guide is made to walk or trot, later chained "worse than a dog" -- and he is unsentimental judge and jury in both native and Western cultures and unflinching to bullets at his feet (in contrast to the slyboots Fanatic). Except for two instances, he holds his emotions deep, and his teaching is patient and wise enough to realize the good as well as the bad in white men and black men.
In occasional zoom-outs, the land that is forever broods and is itself a backbone character though not so sharp-focused as to belittle the elemental human drama enacted against it. Into an alternately sun-drenched or campfire-lit heart of their own darkness, observed by Bushmen, these four journey.
Unadorned characters out of John Ford, they are simultaneously larger than the life they embody, and smaller. Some will succumb to inner devils, others will learn and be the better for it. Always, they will seek their land and home, though always, like the very continent, they may be geographically and culturally divided.
(Released by ArtMattan Productions; not rated by MPAA.)