Words Melanie Tito
“From a viewer’s perspective it is a relief to watch a movie which allows us breathing space, without rushing to fill every minute with rapid dialogue or drama.”
Like a hot, strong cup of tea on a stormy day, Bellbird brings joy and warmth alongside the harsh realities of grief and struggle.
Set in a small rural community in Northland, the iconic New Zealand landscape of a working farm provides both rustic charm and an apt metaphor for the nature of life: beautiful, mundane, chaotic, painful.
Early on in the film we are introduced to Beth (Annie Whittle), wife to Ross (Marshall Napier) and mum to Bruce (Cohen Holloway). Beth is the heart and glue of her family, a community spirit, a lady who loves to sing. When she dies, the music stops. Ross and Bruce are more lost for words than ever, following a lifetime habit of leaving most things left unsaid. The rigorous demands of the family farm give them no time for respite and as one season slips into another, they continue their hard labour and awkward communion while shouldering their grief privately.
Though grief is a central theme in Bellbird, the film is not short of opportunities to smile and laugh, with the carefree humorous spirit of Marley (Kahukura Retimana), the deadpan comedy of Bruce’s boss, Connie (Rachel House) and the earnest comic of Clem (Stephen Tamarapa). The daily grind is made a whole lot easier with cheeky banter, spontaneous thoughts and finding humour in the most abstract details and it is good to remember this while watching Bellbird.
I like many things about this film. From a viewer’s perspective it is a relief to watch a movie which allows us breathing space, without rushing to fill every minute with rapid dialogue or drama. Slowing down to allow swells of silence, shadows across faces, captures of still life, bring a harmony and balance to the film so that we are able to digest both the bitter and the sweet in a pleasurable way.
The spotlight is on Napier and Holloway as the film shines a spotlight on the dad/son relationship, and both play their characters exceedingly well, speaking not just with their lips but with their silences and, indeed, with their entire bodies. We see the relatable layers of vulnerability and tenderness beneath their stoic exteriors and in so doing, remember that there is nothing more ordinary, complex and wonderful than the human heart.
A brilliant debut feature by writer-director Hamish Bennett, celebrating love and loyalty, in an age where we need to be reminded more often of the gifts of community. I look forward to seeing what Bennett creates next.