Calling Ten Canoes a small film would be a bit dismissive. Although it certainly isn't bombastic or tightly paced, it's still an expansive film, with some excellent cinematography that lingers over the Australian wilderness and glides through the scenery and around the actors like one of the titular ten canoes. The film has periodic black and white segments which were well shot, but I think they were a bit unnecessary. I understand the need and desire to make a clear delineation between the two parallel stories, but the overly bright images on screen make the subtitles a bit hard to read at times, and the full color segments are so striking in comparison. Particularly when it comes to the elaborate full body clay makeup the warriors and mystics sometimes don.
The film, in one of those Russian-nesting-doll type stories a la Arabian Nights, is about a man who becomes aware that the youngest of his three wives has become the object of his younger brother Dayindi's affections. On a hunting expedition with several other tribesmen(most unnamed), Minygululu aims to teach young Dayindi a lesson by telling him a story of their ancestors that mirrors their own. In this story within a story, warrior Ridjimaril's younger brother(the brother is played by the same actor in both stories) lusts after his younger wife. This serves as the launching point for several comedic and tragic events, leading to a comedic and tragic ending. Over this, and serving to keep the two stories straight in the audience's mind, is our storyteller. To go any further into the story of the movie would be pointless. In this film it isn't the story that matters, it's the telling. More than a being about the peril's of coveting thy neighbor's(or brother's) wife, this is a movie about storytelling.
Storytelling is an art form that many people like to bemoan the death of, these days, complaining that instead of sitting around a fire and passing stories on to each other, we now sit in front of a flickering screen. This is, I think, a bit of faulty reasoning. Storytelling is still alive, there are still people who travel the nation(or world) telling their stories to new audiences. Also, I think it unjustly maligns movies and television, by dismissing outright the idea that either medium can produce great works of art. Cinema is just as potent a form of storytelling, and it really isn't all that different from more traditional forms. I recall going to see Dancer in the Dark in the theatre, and part of why I fell in love with that film was the theatre experience itself. Often modern movie audiences are just there to kill a friday night, and you can usually hear murmuring and text-messaging around you. In Dancer in the Dark, the entire audience grew silent, and in the end we were inundated with a great, communal wave of grief. A grief that simultaneously fed itself and comforted us, because we were not alone in it. It was the only movie I've been to where no one moved during the end credits, and when we finally did manage to stand and shuffle off into the lobby, everyone's face was wet with tears. It sound awful, but it was one of the best movie-going experiences in my life, and an example of what storytelling can do to a mass audience.
Our storyteller and guide through this film, voiced engagingly by David Gulpilil, is an affable man, clearly in love with his art, and his frequent asides and comments serve to draw you into the tale he is telling. He laughs at jokes onscreen, and often breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience, taunting us for our impatience with his meandering and old fashioned style of storytelling. And, yes, it does take awhile to get to the point of the story, and maybe the end isn't as climactic as an audience weaned on twist endings and third act reversals would be used to, but again, to complain about that would be missing the mark. Gulpilil, our narrator, makes frequent asides, and goes off on tangents, such as a sequence where the men sit in a circle and discuss their theories about what happened to a missing woman, as the camera shows us each of these scenarios in turn. This may not keep the action moving in a way most modern audiences want, but it fits perfectly into the whole 'gathered around a campfire' feel of the movie. A good storyteller allows his story room to breath, knows when to embellish certain facts, explore certain threads. It's not a style very inherent to film, which may test the patience of some viewers, and infuriate some people, but this is a movie you need to just sit back and experience.
In the end, whatever drawbacks may be seen in this film are outweighed by it's engaging and warm style. It's not big, it's not flashy, it may not even be as big of a crowd pleaser as I seem to be making it out to be, but it's easygoing, gentle style is infectious.