Powerful Portrayals of Human Struggle

Two strong movies from New Zealand and Macedonia land squarely on the world cinema map

Lands far from Hollywood are sending films to American theaters, and while the movies vary in quality -- as art, as entertainment, and as statements on contemporary issues -- their presence allows a refreshing change from commercial cinema as usual.

''Once Were Warriors'' hails from New Zealand, but the problems it tackles -- domestic violence, racial tension, youth gangs -- have relevance around the world. The story focuses on Jake and Beth, whose 18-year marriage has spawned a host of problems. Many are caused by Jake's outbursts of drunken abuse. Others stem from Beth's lingering doubts about whether she was right to marry him over the objections of her parents, ethnic Maoris who wished their daughter would stay away from decadent white culture.

The movie gains much of its strength from the hard-hitting style of director Lee Tamahori, whose ability to construct scenes of sustained emotional force is greater than one might expect from a newcomer who developed his skills making TV commercials.

Even more impressive are the performances by Temuera Morrison, a New Zealand soap-opera star of surprising depth, and Rena Owen, whose explosive portrayal of Beth won the best-actress award at last year's Montreal World Film Festival.

The movie itself won the best-film award at Montreal and has been praised at other European and American festivals. It isn't a success only on the movie-buff circuit, moreover: At box offices in New Zealand, it has become the top-grossing picture of all time, outdoing even ''Jurassic Park'' and other high-profile releases.

This doesn't mean it's a masterpiece; as I observed in a report from Montreal, it's less artful than powerful, in the sense that a locomotive or a sledgehammer is powerful. But its cry of anguish over domestic abuse has clearly struck a resonant chord.

''Before the Rain'' also comes to American screens with film-festival credentials, having earned major prizes at the Venice filmfest a few months ago. It's in the current Academy Awards race, too, as Macedonia's entry for best foreign-language film. Milcho Manchevski, who directed the picture from his own screenplay, is a Macedonian native who returned there for this project after launching his career with American films and videos. Part of it was also filmed in London, where its central episode takes place.

Divided into three distinct but related segments, ''Before the Rain'' begins with a story called ''Words,'' set in a Macedonian monastery, where a young monk confronts disorienting new challenges when an Albanian woman is found hiding in his room. The second tale, ''Faces,'' centers on a journalist who's caught between an uninteresting British husband and a Macedonian lover disturbed by accounts of violence in his homeland. The third story, ''Pictures,'' shows his return to Macedonia, where ethnic strife leads to a tragic climax.

The fragmentation of ''Before the Rain'' echoes the fragmentation of Macedonia itself, a tense area of the unstable Balkan region. This metaphorical use of narrative structure is interesting to observe, but it doesn't go very deep in terms of analysis or insight. And unfortunately the film never progresses much beyond this level.

To be sure, Manchevski arrives at some clever ideas in tying all three stories together, and some of the acting -- most vividly that of Rade Serbedzija as the combat photographer who returns to his Macedonian village -- is reasonably forceful.

But most of the characters are two-dimensional embodiments of commonplace attitudes, and few of the narrative developments gather much momentum.

The movie's overall impact is no more memorable than its last plot maneuver, a heavily symbolic rainfall that we've been waiting for since the opening credits. It's sincere but simplistic, stirring less emotion than the picture's important subject deserves.

*''Once Were Warriors'' has an R rating; it contains harrowing scenes of domestic violence and vulgar language. ''Before the Rain'' has not been rated; it also has violence and rough language.

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