If the ancestral pulp of Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto " seemed too loud, too bloody, or too long, the simple magic-realism of "Ten Canoes " might be preferable. Set among the predominantly nude Yolngu people of northern Australia , the film is about the act of storytelling, and how we expect to be gratified or entertained by it.
Played by the veteran Aborigine actor David Gulpilil , who was the star of Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout " and Philip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence ," an unseen Storyteller draws us back a thousand years to his ancestors, a group of Yolngu men stripping trees of their bark to build canoes for the swamp-bound goose-egg-hunting season. One of the men, a goose-egg rookie named Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil , David's son), fancies the third and youngest of the three women married to his much older brother, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu ). This is a no-no, which requires a tale meant to teach the kid a lesson. For us, it means a trip back even further to hear what happened the last time a Yolngu man coveted his brother's missus.
Things are more complicated than that. One man does lust after his brother's youngest wife. But there's also a mysterious stranger who drops in on the tribe (the men deem him a weirdo because he covers his procreative parts with a cloth), and the brother's second wife disappears, sparking a low-key manhunt and speculation that the stranger nabbed her.
Duties for telling this fable fall to our Storyteller and Minygululu , whose portion of the film has been shot in black and white. This strategy means the story is being told by two men with an almost jokey indifference to pacing, and so the tale of the stranger and the missing wife starts and stops and begins again, interrupted by the black-and-white scenes of the hunters building their canoes.
This should be far more frustrating than it is, although as a filmmaking conceit it's frustrating enough. Yet the codirectors -- the Dutch-Australian veteran Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr , an Aborigine whose background is in traditional crafts rather than film -- go at this movie with a naturalist serenity that's too playful to be completely vexing. It's handsome-looking, too. When we're not following the story (because the film has taken a break from telling it), we're following the camera as it glides through the sunny swampland and dotes on the full, contemplative faces of the actors.
The movie also merrily insists that things were extremely formal a thousand years ago. Who knew that silent-but-deadly was a genre of flatulence even back then? But maybe "Ten Canoes" plays too much. It's a thriller that refuses to thrill. It taunts us with resolution and mysteries, then slaps our hand for reaching out for a conclusion. That's a natural expectation that the filmmakers are happy to subvert.