Time to kill

"Before the Rain" bears witness to the cost of civil war; "Federal Hill" stumbles on the wrong side of the tracks

Writer/director Milcho Manchevski insists his captivating first feature is a work of fiction. But striking similarities link the bloody Macedonian ethnic conflict depicted in Before the Rain to bloodshed in the Bosnian war.

In fact, the transplanted Macedonian filmmaker (who shuttles between his hometown of Skopje and New York, his adopted home) depicts the way minor disputes between ethnic and religious groups of southeastern Europe escalate from squabbling to bloodshed in the wink of an eye. Manchevski replaces Croats and Serbs with Albanians and Macedonians, but the result is the same: Violence evolves to absurd and tragic levels, with cousins shooting cousins, fathers killing daughters.

Before the Rain, nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, is the first Macedonian film ever to receive such international attention. Yet Rain is essentially an intimate portrait of how age-old ethnic/religious conflicts affect three different people: Kiril (GrŽgoire Colin, the creepy lead character from Agnieszka Holland's Olivier, Olivier), a young Macedonian monk sworn to a vow of silence who hides an Albanian girl (Labina Mitevska) from an angry mob; Anne (Katrin Cartlidge, recently seen in Mike Leigh's Naked), an English photo editor who has fallen in love with a local photographer and must choose whether to stay with her estranged husband or escape to Macedonia; and Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija, one of the former Yugoslavia's most popular actors), the disillusioned Macedonian war photographer who returns to his childhood village only to discover that once minor Moslem/Christian conflicts have erupted into a full-blown blood feud.

Deftly tying these three stories together with the slightest– but nonetheless tangible — of threads, Manchevski's circular script unfolds in shocking and illuminating ways. Though his background is in experimental films, commercials and music videos, Manchevski displays an uncanny maturity and confidence in this first dramatic feature. Pulling out strong performances from his international cast, he also takes considerable chances in his storytelling, tossing in confusing visual tidbits that only make sense as the film reaches its numbing climax.

Taking care to strike a balance between Moslem and Christian perspectives, Manchevski eloquently sheds light on how the innocent usually bear the full brunt of civil war, while the warmongers casually go about their business. Manchevski even offers a slight moment of compassion for the Uzi-toting Macedonian mob that attempts to break into the monastery while searching for a runaway Albanian girl in the film's opening segment. As the thugs storm the cloister, an elder monk blocks the entrance, begging their leader to “turn the other cheek.” The scared and grim-faced commander defiantly responds, “We have,” echoing years of hatred and conflict, simmering from one generation to the next and now raging out of control.

As its title suggests, Before the Rain focuses on the ominous clouds hovering over a country that so far has escaped the misery of full-blown war. Manchevski can only hope that they don't unleash another hail of bullets.

Michael Arago

Formula buries “Federal Hill”
Maybe one day,” says Ralphy (Nicholas Turturro), trying to soothe the heavy heart of his broken-down old man, “I'll find the right girl, ask her to go halves on a kid with me and then, bing, you'll be a grandfather.” It's a moment of tender promise early in Federal Hill, writer-director Michael Corrente's snapshot of the mean streets of Providence, Rhode Island. It's also a stark contrast to the explosive temper Ralphy unleashes when he learns his father, who literally built a business with his bare hands, has been banished from the construction site. But like its unruly antihero, Federal Hill seems constitutionally unable to live up to its potential.

Compact and cocksure, Ralphy is the spark plug in a group of gangly young men: Joey (Robert Turano), who took the rap on a botched job and hosts their weekly poker game; Frankie (Michael Raynor), the sharp-dressed son of a local wiseguy; Bobby (Jason Andrews), a carhop who's always getting his ass in a sling; and Nicky (Anthony De Sando), Ralphy's lifelong best friend, the ladies' man who just might escape the Federal Hill neighborhood if he survives his postadolescent bout of Saturday night fever.

Working stiffs by day — Nicky is a grease monkey, Ralphy a bricklayer — each has a shadowy second “job” that keeps him in easy money. But, like countless screen buddies before them, members of the Federal Hill gang only truly come to life as “one of the guys.” When they're not blustering around the card table, the boys scarf hot dogs on the street corner, chow down pasta at the diner and pound drinks at the local watering hole; when the mood strikes, they crash frat parties, or let Ralphy beat on passing cars with a tire iron.

Then Nicky falls for Wendy (Libby Langdon), a Brown University coed, triggering the film's steady descent into predictability. Ralphy warns his buddy about the “college broad” (“She's only after your coke and your cock,” he maintains) and, sure enough, love and loyalty are quickly on a far-too-familiar collision course.

While the wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance drives the plot — like Wendy, the audience is smoothly seduced by the ethnic charms of Corrente's old neighborhood — Ralphy is the tortured soul of Federal Hill. A bundle of class resentment, Ralphy can't stand anyone who has it made, whether they're Federal Hill “family” or from the Midwest. And his brass balls and bad attitude can't conceal the sexual chip on his shoulder. In the tradition of Sal Mineo's parentless sidekick from Rebel Without a Cause, Ralphy's devotion to Nicky carries an unambiguous, though comparatively understated, erotic charge (the self-styled “brothers” share a bed, etc.).

Turturro's edgy performance, Richard Crudo's black-and-white cinematography and a jazzy score mark Federal Hill as another first feature heavily indebted to Martin Scorsese. (Frankie's father — played by Frank Vincent, who also appeared in Raging Bull — first appears onscreen working a bag with his fists.) But Corrente's tale lacks the gutterside grit of Nick Gomez's Laws of Gravity or the “originality” of Rob Weiss' slick debut, Amongst Friends, which transplanted its bad boys from the 'hood to suburban Long Island.

In the film's emotional climax, Ralphy finally picks up his father's trowel — but instead of building a future, he's burying the last piece of his heart. Yet like Federal Hill's exquisitely sad supporting turns by Vinny Gugliotti (Ralphy's dad) and Phyllis Kay (Joey's wife), Ralphy's anguish is ultimately drowned out by Corrente's boy-meets-girl formula.

William O. Goggins

Before the Rain opens Fri, March 10, at the Lumiere in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley. Federal Hill opens Fri, March 10, at the Kabuki in

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