Action Drama

Christianity and Colonialism: A TIFF Review of ‘The Convert’

September 9, 2023Ben MK

From Pocahontas to Avatar, films about man's quest to colonize and conquer other cultures and civilizations are no stranger to moviegoers. Whether it's historical fact or futuristic fiction, the subject matter has long provided filmmakers with fertile ground for sewing the seeds of compelling and thought-provoking tales. And in the period action drama The Convert, director Lee Tamahori is continuing that tradition, as he sets out to tell the story of a British soldier-turned-minister who finds himself caught in the middle of a brutal and bloody conflict between two warring Māori iwi tribes.

The year is 1830, and Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) is a man out to spread the word of God to the tribal nations of the South Pacific. After the ship meant to deliver him to the British outpost of Epworth runs afoul of roughy waters, however, an unplanned detour to a nearby island has Thomas inadvertently thrust into the thick of a feud between two warring iwi tribes. It's an ongoing battle that has resulted in terrible loss of life on both sides, including the husband of Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), the daughter of tribal chief Maianui (Antonio Te Maioha). But when Thomas saves Rangimai's life and is accepted into her tribe, he ends up coming face to face with rival chief Akatarawa (Lawrence Makoare), who will stop at nothing until his enemies are decimated. Determined to help prevent the Māori from destroying themselves — a scenario that would only benefit the British Empire's expansion into the area — Thomas embarks on a mission to try and broker a peace between the two clans. But will Akatarawa be willing to show mercy? Or will Thomas become just another casualty of war?

Beautifully shot and emotionally devastating in its depiction of the Māori's struggle with both themselves and the outsiders in their midst, the result is a masterwork that tells an age-old tale about colonialism and culture clash. The difference this time, however, is that Tamahori uses his personal perspective to navigate the terrain of the genre and avoid its various tropes and clichés. So while its themes may echo a familiar refrain, it's the authenticity of the voices behind The Convert that makes it deserving of moviegoers' attention.

The Convert screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 59 min.

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