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Before Noah, there was The Last Wave

Darren Aronofsky's latest film Noah is triggered by an outsider having premonitions of a deluge that destroys the land. If you're into that sort of thing, there's an earlier film well worth a look that shares the same trigger, Peter Weir's 1977 strange meditation The Last Wave.

The film is set in Australia and focuses on a lawyer named David (Richard Chamberlain) who is representing a group of Aboriginal men who have been accused of murder. The men have evidence that could exculpate them, but they won't divulge it — which makes David more curious, so he starts to dig into what they're unwilling to show him. During all this, David also starts having bizarre dreams and premonitions of rain that won't stop falling, water that won't stop flowing, and of Sydney being washed away in a massive tidal wave. And in these premonitory dreams, David also sees Chris, one of the accused men he's representing (played by Gulpilil). This pushes David to learn of a buried Aboriginal history and culture under Sydney that seems to have predicted his premonitions generations ago. It's a creepy, careful, well-paced film that rewards attention and merits repeat viewings.


Weir has said that the idea for his fifth film emerged when he asked himself "What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?" That question coincides with one of Weir's other interests in this film — exploring the intersection of cultures, the "system of perception," and what happens when those cultures overlap. So David the pragmatist enters (or is dragged into) the Dreamtime, while the men he's representing try to maintain and hide a tribal culture while living in a modern Australian city.

The film skillfully creates unsettling moments that raise questions about an unseen world, but is careful not to offer any pat answers, spiritual or otherwise. The "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?" scene is mesmerizing. The man playing the tribal leader who dominates that scene, Nandjiwarra Amagula, was also a tribal leader in real life who had never acted before or since, and was brought on when asked to review the tribal elements in the script.

The film is now part of the Criterion Collection, and should be easy to find. Diane Jacobs provides a nice essay about the film for the Criterion website, but be aware that it is a bit spoilery (she gives away the ending). In 1979, Judith Kass interviewed Weir in the New York Times for the U.S. premier of the film; that interview provides some excellent insight into the background of the film, and is especially good after one or two viewings.


So if you saw Noah and were intrigued by the concept of a person having apocalyptic deluge premonitions, not knowing if he was mad or not, and the esoteric ramifications of all that, you might want to give Peter Weir's The Last Wave a look. Something about the film feels magical in a way that magic doesn't.

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