Movie review: 'Masai: The Rain Warriors'

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3 stars (out of four)

Throughout the fascinating new film "Masai: The Rain Warriors"--made in Africa by French filmmakers and an African cast--director Pascal Plisson keeps showing us overhead views and moving tableaux of his main characters, the Masai "rain warriors" of the title, trudging through the parched grasses and twisted plants of a severe African drought.

These are visions of extreme hardship and strain. The warriors are desperately trying to appease the gods by slaying a legendary lion, called Vitchoua, to end the drought. But the images are so beautiful, set against the waving golden grasses with a high bright sky above, that we almost forget the dire plight behind the Masai trek. (That plight is brought home strongly, though, by the close-ups of their suffering faces.)

The beauty and excitement of "Masai: the Rain Warriors"--opening for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque--comes partly fro m our sense that we're intimately entering a whole, rich new world whose people and customs were previously foreign to us. But they also come from the movie's unusual technical finesse and cinematic poetry, its lush setting--the Rift Valley in Kenya's African Highlands, traditional homeland of the Masai--and the surprising brilliance of its cast, composed entirely of amateur actors from the Masai tribe.

"Masai" is a thrilling and poignant rite-of-passage tale about the tribe's youthful warriors or guards, headed by two prime warriors and fast friends, Merono (Ngotiek Ole Mako) and Lomotoon (Parkasio Ole Muntet), who are charged with finding and killing the lion. Also along is a Walter Brennan-Morgan Freeman figure, the grizzled, gabby older guide and ex-warrior Papai, in a lovely performance by Paul Nteri Ole Sekenan.

Mako's Merono (with his delicate features) and Muntet's Lomotoon (with his athlete's dash) are two staunch comrades who have kept a lifelong friendship despite class differences. Merono is the son of a poor shepherd, and Lomotoon is from an elite family; his sister Laila (Mbeti Sereti) is Merono's "secret" crush, and his older brother Tepilit was a tribal hero, killed by the lion. But though Merono, Lomotoon and Papai are the most instantly recognizable characters, the rest of the troop are vividly particularized and very incisively acted as well.

"Masai" was directed by Plisson (a prolific ethnographic documentarian, who has often worked in East Africa), who shares writing credit with Olivier Dazat ("Himalaya"). It was shot, absolutely stunningly, by Manuel Teran, whom we know from the striking urban photography for Cyril Collard's searing AIDS drama "Savage Nights" and Jonathan Demme's darkly playful "Charade" remake "The Truth About Charlie." Using those brilliant images, Dazat and Plisson have framed the story so much like a classic western or medieval quest tale that there's an exalted feel to the last scenes. The myth finally takes over.

"Masai" is also intensely and lusciously devoted to detail. All the film's great sights--the views of the vast savanna and desert, the tiny baby gazelle cradled in the hero's hands, the giraffe wandering amiably though a village or the bleak volcanic wilderness ruled by the lion--have a gorgeous radiance that moves or delights.

Some of the great African filmmakers, like Senegal's Ousmane Sembene, often deliberately shoot in a simple style that can strike some , erroneously, as "primitive." By the same token, the extreme sophistication and beauty of the imagery here may alienate some audiences, who will find "Masai" too "western." But "Masai" springs from an admirable cultural mix. The French filmmakers lend it their special aesthetic/dramatic sense, and the Masai actors ground the story in everyday realism and humanity. Together, they create a film and a legend to remember.

mwilmington@tribune.com

----

'Masai: The Rain Warriors'

Directed by Pascal Plisson; written by Olivier Dazat, Plisson; photographed by Manuel Teran; art direction by Guy Hakim; music by Yvan Cassar, with Richard Bona and Eric Chevalier; produced by Richard Grandpierre, Stephane Parthenay. In Maa with English subtitles. An ArtMattan Productions release; opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque. Running time: 1:34. No MPAA rating. Parents cautioned for stylized violence and danger.

Merono - Ngotiek Ole Mako

Lomotoon - Parkasio Ole Muntet

Papai - Paul Nteri Ole Sekenan

Narkossai - Swakei Kipilosh

Saitoti - Lemerok Nkuruna

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