4 out of 5 stars
‘So ring your bell, bellbird, you're a-calling me back home’ - Bellbird: New Zealand / Australian Folk Song
Director Hamish Bennett’s inspiration for Bellbird came from his memories of living in the small rural Northland community of Tauraroa. A world of beautiful farmland and the resilient, traditional folk that worked the fields. Seeing the beauty in the pure stillness of their lives provided him with a story of quiet grief that transcends cultures.
The life of dairy farming had been in Ross’ (Marshall Napier) family for multiple generations. He had cared for his herd for years with his vibrant and winsome wife, Beth (Annie Whittle). A woman who manages to find a friend in every corner of their community, especially in the tight-knit local choir. When she suddenly passes away, Ross and the community grieve for their loss in different ways. The vocal group processes their loss through song and the seasoned dairyman becomes even more insular and stoic.
Even when his son, Bruce (Cohen Holloway), moves back in to help with the farm, the farmer finds it hard to express his emotions. He hopes that his son will want to take over the family business, but Bruce is not a natural when it comes to animals. As the two men strive to deal with their loss and rediscover their personal relationship, they must come to rely on neighbours and friends for help. A sober and disquieting experience that eventually forces them to come to determine how they will live without Beth.
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. - 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
There were two things that resonate about this film from the opening credits. One was the value of a passage like the one in 1 Thessalonians which talks of the significance of a quiet and hardworking life. Not all of us are designed for the fast-paced existence of city living. Many are better equipped for the serene existence of the farm or a rural life. Bennett’s story proves that there is a depth and meaning to the understated complexities of living off of the land. He manages to show that it takes a particular person to live the life of a farmer and the special bond of those who live with these artists of the land.
The second component that drives this film is the journey of sorrow that everyone experiences in this life. For some, it is expressed through song, for others, it is handled through working harder and then for many, it is a slow and painful path of quiet unrest. Veteran actor, Marshall Napier, encapsulates the very being of a man who cannot express his grief in words. A familiar way for so many in the world that is only remedied by patient and long-suffering care. This is beautifully shown through the tempered performance of Cohen Holloway as his son and the abruptly loving family friend played by Rachel House. The sojourn of all involved in the small community manages to deliver a satisfying emotional arch of the highs and lows of this life.
Bellbird is a charming character study of the human soul. It brings us closer to the rural lives of New Zealand by taking us down this tranquil pathway and shows us how these communities are not so different from others on this earth. A film worth seeking out and settling into the beautiful melancholy that comes with the human experience.