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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.

Manchevski links the three segments in a variety of ways. "Words," "Faces," and "Pictures" share a common subtext: Men often act rashly and women deal with the consequences of those actions. Anne, Zamira, and the old women weeping over the casket are all victims of deranged male fury. On a less conceptual level, snatches of a Beastie Boys tune appear unexpectedly throughout, and graffiti bearing the mysterious legend "Time never dies" adorns walls in both London and Macedonia. The central narrative folds back into itself like an M.C. Escher drawing. Manchevski's dexterous manipulation of time and story line rivals Tarantino's in Pulp Fiction. And the striking cinematography, particularly the footage shot in the Macedonian hills, takes your breath away. The image of those towering clouds pregnant with rain is simply unforgettable, and when they finally burst, the effect is one powerful catharsis. A film that delivers a single memorable image is a noteworthy achievement; Before the Rain offers a deluge of them.

Catharsis is also the goal of Once Were Warriors, but it is not so effectively realized. The film chronicles the malaise afflicting many of the modern-day Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand; once warriors, the Maori have fallen on hard times. Jake Heke, a volatile, hardheaded, beer-swilling, recently laid-off blue-collar guy, takes out his frustrations by pummeling anyone stupid enough to get in his way with his piston-driven fists. Beth, his long-suffering wife, makes that mistake repeatedly over their eighteen years of wedded bliss. But she can't screw up the courage to leave Jake until one of his drinking buddies accosts the Hekes' angelic daughter, Grace (as you might have guessed by Grace's name, subtlety is not one of this film's major concerns), sending the formerly affectionate teenager into a despairing funk that spirals into self-destruction.

The Hekes play out their violent domestic drama against a postindustrial backdrop that makes the landscapes in Mad Max seem lush and inviting by comparison. The story line veers little from straight-ahead man-beats-wife melodrama, giving Once Were Warriors an unremittingly bleak outlook. Even the self-conscious dialogue, scripted by playwright-actress Riwia Brown, is overwrought and severe. "Keep your mouth shut and your legs open," Jake commands his spouse after tenderizing her with a particularly hideous battering.

So the story hits one depressing note over and over and the dialogue is so stilted it sometimes borders on parody and the acting is inconsistent. The movie must really suck, right? Well, no.

Director Lee Tamahori has succeeded in creating a stylistic nightmare world. His direction vitalizes a self-righteous, cliche-ridden, run-of-the-mill domestic melodrama. Maybe you can't get into the story, but you can't take your eyes off the visuals. The stunning all-Maori cast make for a compelling sight, their dramatic features accented by black leather jackets, tank tops, and tattoos. Biceps and cleavage bulge. Street gangbangers paint their faces to resemble their fierce fighting ancestors. Homeless kids, too numbed even to dream, inhabit the rusted hulls of abandoned cars.

The intense fight scenes crackle with kinetic energy. Forget Rocky; when Jake takes on an opponent in a barroom brawl, you almost can hear the ribs snapping. And when he turns his violence on Beth, the pounding she endures makes you want to put a gun to Jake's head. It's sickeningly real. After a while just viewing so much authentic-looking brutality takes its toll. The audience feels almost as beaten down as Beth. Mercifully, we don't have to stick it out as long as she does.


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