The Damagae Men Do

Why do men still run the world? Look at their track record: Millenniums have passed and they still haven't figured out ways to avoid warfare, clean up the environment, eradicate poverty, and generally make the planet a better place to live. Along the way, technological advances have rendered their edge over women in physical size and brute strength meaningless in the workplace. More bread is won with computer keystrokes than manual labor these days. But as ethnic warfare in the Balkans and ever-increasing numbers of battered women flocking to shelters prove, the notion that might makes right has not vanished with the emergence of the information superhighway. Maybe someday we'll beat swords into silicone chips, but men's macho gene has proven to be one intractable little bugger.

It's incredible that in a world this dysfunctional the hens continue to allow the roosters to rule. From the kitchens to the bedrooms to the boardrooms to the battlefields, men have demonstrated a truly breathtaking capacity for botching things up, and many women have paid dearly for male stupidity in lost loved ones, lost dignity, and lost hope, all without having much more than a token say. It's time for a really big change. Let the women on top. They can't do any worse in the next 2000 years than men have in the past 2000.

That may not be the official "message" of Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain or native (Maori) New Zealander Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors, but the pair shouldn't hold it against anyone who interprets their films in that way. Whether examining the origins of war in Rain or the roots of domestic violence in Warriors, the result is the same: Men, no matter how sadistic, ignorant, or obstinate, make the rules and resort to violence when their fragile pride is threatened. The women who survive are relegated to weeping over caskets after the boys have had their fun.

Before the Rain delivers its powerful indictment of male-dominated ethnic conflict in three intertwined parts. "Words" opens with the funeral of an unidentified gray-bearded man on a windswept hillside in the mountains of Macedonia. Old women weep while men stand vigil with automatic rifles. An ancient monastery sits in the distance. Kiril (Gregoire Colin, of Olivier, Olivier), a young monk who has taken a vow of silence, tends his garden, oblivious to the burial in progress. Majestic clouds loom over the elevated terrain; the air hangs heavy with portent.

The funeral and the monastery appear to be mutually exclusive worlds. But when Kiril returns to his spartan room, he discovers a mysterious Albanian girl, Zamira, hiding there. He brings her some food and shelters her for the night. The sanctuary's tranquility is exploded the following morning when a posse of armed Macedonian villagers A all men A bursts in. They want to kill the Albanian girl. In an effort to protect her, Kiril lies to the armed intruders and to his fellow holy men; his decision to safeguard Zamira has stirred feelings within him that will cause tragic consequences.

In the film's second segment, "Faces," Katrin Cartlidge, the masochistic punkette from Naked, plays Anne, a London magazine editor torn between her passionless loyalty to her estranged husband and her compelling attraction to a quixotic Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer. A torrid backseat taxicab ride with her gray-bearded shutterbug lover, Aleksander, who announces his decision to move back to Macedonia and begs Anne to accompany him, gives Anne a lot to think about when she meets her husband in an upscale London restaurant. He wants to reconcile. She wants a divorce. Their discussion comes to an abrupt halt when a violent argument with roots in the Macedonian-Albanian conflict erupts in another section of the restaurant.

In "Pictures," the third part of Rain, Aleksander forsakes London, Anne, and his distinguished career for the Macedonian village of his birth. It's a tricky part for an actor to play, the kind that might have gone to a William Holden or a Spencer Tracy in another time. Rade Serbedzija, an award-winning Yugoslavian actor, theater director, and poet, effortlessly nails the world-weary, disillusioned essence of the globetrotting photographer aching to return to his roots. But the political climate in his homeland has taken a nasty turn in the years since he left. The splintering of Yugoslavia after the fall of communism has left no central government to bottle up long-simmering ethnic tensions between Albanians and Macedonians. The specter of civil war casts a shadow to match that of the ominous clouds over the countryside. The violence Aleksander witnessed as a front-line lensman has infected his homeland. Former neighbors have become blood enemies. When his childhood love, an Albanian woman from a neighboring village, seeks Aleksander's help to protect her daughter, the professional observer must take action.

Before the Rain marks the stunning feature film debut of writer-director Milcho Manchevski, who cut his teeth stateside directing music videos (Arrested Development's "Tennessee," for one). All three sections of the film hammer home the effects of war on the innocent. Once the pot starts to boil, Manchevski asserts, there's no telling who will get scalded.

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