Only South Sea islanders appeared in this silent film about a young couple violating a sacred tabu.
In Part 1 Paradise spearfishers and women are called from playing in the water when a ship is seen. They all run to the shore, go out in canoes, and climb aboard the ship that has anchored. An elder on the ship is given a document from the Bora Bora chief; their sacred maiden has died, and they have chosen Reri to replace her. No man may touch or desire her; to break this tabu means death. The elder Hitu is to bring her. As women gather flowers, Reri cries and says good-bye. Young men in grass skirts dance, and Reri dances the hula. Young Matahi dances with her until Hitu stops them. Then Reri is taken to the ship. At night Matahi swims out to the ship, and the captain writes that Reri has been stolen; they will be hunted and killed.
In Part 2 Paradise Lost the lovers flee to a place without the old religion. The couple is found exhausted. Matahi gives a pearl but does not understand money and signs bills. People celebrate, and Reri and Matahi dance the hula. The ship arrives, and the couple is arrested for a government reward to keep peace between the islands. Matahi gives the man a pearl, and he laughs and tears up the paper. The elder Hitu appears. A diver at a tabu spot that has pearls is killed by a shark. At night Reri is left a note saying she must return in three days or Matahi will die. Reri learns a ship is coming in two days. Matahi takes his money to buy a ticket but discovers he has many bills that must be paid first. He returns to Reri with an empty box. That night Matahi dreams finding a pearl will tear up his bills. Hitu appears to Reri again, and she pleads with him. Matahi goes diving at the tabu spot while Reri writes to him she is going with Hitu so that Matahi may live. Matahi is attacked by a shark but escapes. He finds a pearl in the oysters. Reri boards a boat with Hitu, as Matahi finds her note. He runs after her and swims after the boat; but Hitu cuts the rope, leaving Matahi behind, and he drowns.
This archetypal story has Matahi suffering for violating a native sexual tabu and for not understanding the civilized money system. In spite of his diving skill and ability to elude the shark, the combination of these two problems causes his death. The film won the Oscar for cinematography and enables the audience to experience something of the simple of beauty of living on a South Sea island.