It takes weighty matters of colonial history and cultural identity and wraps them up in a cracker yarn about life and death, dark and light, deceit and discovery. A sincere, heartfelt attempt to enter into and convey a Maori story told through Maori eyes, this adaptation of a Witi Ihimaera novella is doubly commendable because it is written and directed by a film-maker who was born, and learned her craft, in Mexico.
Rotberg, who says she was inspired to come and live in New Zealand after seeing Whale Rider, read voraciously about Tuhoe and spent time in Te Urewera, where the film is set, during the development process.
Her respect for and knowledge of tikanga, which is evident in every frame, would put many pakeha New Zealanders to shame. And the payoff is a handsome and accomplished film whose calm exterior belies its powerful beating heart.
She's chosen an evocative and apt title (the Maori version, Tuakiri Huna, means something like "hidden identity") for an adaptation of Ihimaera's Medicine Woman, which appeared in the 2007 collection Ask the Posts of the House.
The original, which is far from the writer's best work, was nevertheless driven by a brilliant idea, the essence of which will not be divulged here.
But it is enough to say that it takes weighty matters of colonial history and cultural identity and wraps them up in a cracker yarn about life and death, dark and light, deceit and discovery.
The main figure, Ihimaera's title character, is Paraiti (singer Black is excellent in her acting debut), a Maori healer who moves from settlement to settlement in Tuhoe, collecting plants and ministering to the sick in villages. It's the 1920s and the Tohunga Suppression Act has banned her from treating anything other than minor ailments, so some of the scenes of her at work are a heady blend of suspense and ethnography.
Rotberg and cinematographer Alun Bollinger conjure some extraordinary moments here: a sequence in a meeting house in which one of the elders says a prayer before Paraiti's clinic is hauntingly authentic, like one of those shadowy old studio photos come to life. But Paraiti is about to find herself hauled into another world.
On a visit to town - one of the many triumphs of a superb production design; take a bow, Tracey Collins - she is accosted by Maraea (House), the maid of a wealthy, alabaster-white pakeha woman (Prebble) with a delicate problem: she is pregnant and her husband is about to return from an extended absence. The problem must be done away with.
The challenge Paraiti faces - a healer asked to be a killer - has a particularly rich resonance given a tragedy that has just befallen her. But this is only the beginning of the drama.
Given this story takes place in a Maori world (and a women's one at that; there is no significant male character), it is unsurprising that it does not dance to the traditional beat of screen fiction. Nonetheless the languorous pace comes close to dragging at times - there are some single-sentence scenes that look suspiciously like narrative patch-ups - and some leaden lines ("You Maoris have ancient ways").
There are also some jarringly implausible moments: an opening sequence set in Paraiti's childhood is out of a comic book, not a history book; a hospital matron is grotesquely overdrawn; and Paraiti's expressed motivation for her crucial decision is obscure at best. Nonetheless, it's an impressive and memorable piece of work from our most prolific production house. It won't have the international sales legs of Whale Rider, but it deserves to make a splash at home.
Cast: Whirimako Black, Antonia Prebble, Rachel House, Nancy Brunning
Director: Dana Rotberg
Running time: 96 mins
Rating: M (violence, nudity) In English and Maori with English subtitles
Verdict: Handsome and heartfelt