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"Willow" And "Before the Rain"

Audrey inspects a film
Audrey inspects a film

Willow is an award-winning 2019 release, the most recent feature film from New York-based Macedonian artist/writer/director Milcho Manchevski. The theme of this noteworthy film is the yearnings of couples, primarily the women, for having a child.

There are two stories. The first takes place in hundreds of years ago. A couple has been trying to have a baby for five years. They visit the local witch who tells them they are cursed. She is willing to remove the curse if they, in turn, will turn over their first-born to her. What an incredible foundation to on which to build a drama!

Next is the modern story, longer, occasionally meandering, and with more nuance to it, in which two sisters are barren. One adopts a silent young boy who may be autistic. One eventually becomes pregnant with twins. Then they are consumed with questions about the nature and health of the children.

Willow was the 2019 Oscar entry from the Republic of Macedonia, but it did not make the final cut of nominations. In 2020, the film won the Silver Palm at the Mostra de Valencia-Cinema del Mediterrani film festival. This month Kino Lorber released both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut of Willow on a single DVD.

What makes this film outstanding is the choice of detail shared by Manchevski with his audience, particularly in the inclinations of his main characters. The Macedonian actors are not household names in the United States, but I was drawn to their characters almost immediately. Their plights are depicted with compassion. Manchevski has built the world of Willow with such sensitivity that it seems impossible not be interested in this film.

Manchevski’s debut feature, Before the Rain, was released in 1994, and was an Oscar nominee in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Criterion released this film on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is available for streaming on the Criterion Channel, Kanopy, and possibly from other services.

Before the Rain presents multiple stories as a knotty time puzzle. A young priest who has taken a vow of silence lives a life of peace and deep spirituality, praying with his older mentors and raising vegetables. He is immune to the woes of the world around him until the world intrudes upon his serenity. One night a young woman enters his cell, and he then becomes involved with local fighters in a war in North Macedonia. An explanation of whom is fighting whom isn’t given, but the conflict appears to set the Orthodox Christian Macedonians against the Albanian Muslim minority.

The film then focuses on a woman in London who works in a photography studio. She is pregnant by her husband but wants a divorce, possibly in order to continue to carry on an affair with a North Macedonian war photographer. Then that man, a Pulitzer Prize winner, embarks on a trip from London back to his war-torn village.

In both Willow and Before the Rain, Manchevski weaves events from different times and places into thematically cohesive narratives. The filmmaker himself left Macedonia in the 1980s, so shooting Before the Rain there was a kind of homecoming, an experience similar to that of the character of the war photographer.

At times Before the Rain leaves the viewer wondering at the lack of plot consistency. A pointer helps to bring the events together. “The circle is not round” is repeated as a clue to the film’s structure. It’s clear that the films of Milcho Manchevski are intended to not only involve us, but occasionally astound us with their depictions of people who want what they do not have.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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