The Maori family at the heart of “Cousins” greet each other by pressing their foreheads and noses together. The camera does the same: It peers deep into the characters’ faces, as if imprinting them onto its lens.
The first face we encounter is Mata’s (Tanea Heke) as she walks dazedly through an unnamed city; the noises and textures around her blur together. With that same sensory dislocation, the film takes us back to her childhood, when she was separated from her family by her white father and placed in an orphanage.
This tragedy begets several more in the sprawling “Cousins.” Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith breathe gorgeous cinematic life into the 1992 novel by Patricia Grace (Grace-Smith’s mother) about the diverging paths of three Maori cousins in 1940s and ’50s New Zealand. A few years after Mata disappears, Makareta (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) flees home to escape an arranged marriage. Missy (Hariata Moriarty), realizing that the wedding is their family’s desperate attempt to consolidate and retain their ancestral lands, takes her cousin’s place.
Widespread racism, discriminatory laws and the Maori people’s centuries-long struggle for autonomy bracket the characters’ lives in “Cousins.” The film trembles with sound, color and feeling, deriving much of its power from an excellent ensemble cast (particularly Te Raukura Gray and Ana Scotney as the child and adult Mata). Not only do the actors who play different versions of each character bear striking resemblances to one another, but an ache — for their whānau (extended family), for their home and heritage — carries through their performances. They powerfully embody the Maori belief that genealogical ties can never be severed.
Not rated. In English and Maori, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.
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