Three women yearn for motherhood in Willow (Vrba), a film whose sensuous images and interpenetrating time periods bring to mind Milcho Manchevski’s memorable 1994 Venice Golden Lion winner Before the Rain. Here the Macedonian director (now a longtime New Yorker) returns to his roots, recounting an age-old drama through his country’s society and folklore. The time frame jumps from the Middle Ages to the present day, yet the topic of maternity is timely and universal. It feels a little cerebral at times, but should hit the spot with upscale audiences after its bow at the Rome Film Fest.
Following close on the heels of Bikini Moon, Manchevski’s semi-experimental mockumentary set in the U.S., this account of longing to become a parent has the pleasing looks and all-round fine cast to rustle up art house engagements. It was produced in association with Scala Productions, and the late English producer Nik Powell is credited as an executive producer.
The first story set in times long ago is the most eye-catching and resonates with the contemporary stories that follow. A young peasant couple in rough homespun clothes performs a strange ritual with a rope beside an immense stone. Later, the woman, Donka (Sara Klimoska), prays to Mary, the mother of Jesus, for a child. This is what it’s all about — folk superstition or religion, she is desperate to bear a child after five years of marriage. Her husband, Milan (Nikola Risteski), is no less fervent than she is. Finally they consult a witchy old granny who makes them an offer: a gaggle of children in exchange for their firstborn. It turns into a devil’s bargain in a chilling, heart-stopping conclusion. Young Klimoska (who starred in the Sundance award-winning short Would You Look at Her) and Risteski are convincing in their instinctual, uncensored reactions. The wonderful Halloween face of Ratka Radmanovic playing the implacable old witch is the stuff of nightmares.
But Willow isn’t all fairy tales. The complexity of this apparently simple film is how one story flows into the next, illuminating it in unexpected ways. An example is how Manchevski compares the rituals, prayers and sacrifices that sterile medieval couples performed to have children with modern practices like artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization: how similar are the would-be parents’ hopes and expectations; how unpredictable is the remedy’s success or failure.
The second tale involves a taxi driver named Branko (Nenad Nacev), who hits and almost kills an old man one rainy night. While waiting for the police to arrive, he meets the funny, hyper-sensitive Rodna (stage and screen actress Natalija Teodosieva), who is smitten by his uncommon honesty. They fall in love and move in together but they, too, can’t conceive. Making great economic sacrifices, they turn to modern medicine and at long last, Rodna becomes pregnant with twins. But their joy soon comes up against the same stone wall of unjust fate that plagued the medievals.
The concluding story involves Rodna’s sister Katerina, played with end-of-tether naturalness by Kamka Tocinovski (Punk’s Not Dead, Upside Down). When she and her husband were unable to conceive, they chose to adopt the sweet-faced 5-year-old Kire (the pixie-like Petar Caranovic). Now the child, who doesn’t speak, appears severely traumatized and possibly autistic, showing no trust in his new parents. When he goes missing one day, Katerina enters a nightmare that mirrors Donka’s. Though Kire darkly echoes the boy in the first story, he has a few surprises up his sleeve.
Manchevski’s finest films — of which this is certainly one — are marked by superbly atmospheric camerawork and a confident command of the camera, which often resorts to extreme close-ups to mark the physicality of key emotional moments. In the first episode, Tamas Dobos’ dazzling textured cinematography creates an elemental world out of fields of grain, prehistoric stones and sweating, un-made-up faces.
But all the characters are closely observed and riveting. Like the pic’s titular willow, which is associated with resilience as well as weeping, they face a tearful gamut of human disasters and come out fighting. The actors are impelling but never telegraph where they are headed; in fact, the outcome of the stories is unforeseeable and the ending, while satisfying, leaves a lot of room for pondering.
Production companies: Banana Film in association with Scala Productions
Cast: Sara Klimoska, Natalija Teodosieva, Kamka Tocinovski, Nenad Nacev, Nikola Risteski, Petar Caranovikj, Ratka Radmanovic
Director-screenwriter: Milcho Manchevski
Producers: Jane Kortoshev, Milcho Manchevski
Executive producers: Nik Powell, Ian Prior
Director of photography: Tamas Dobos
Production designer: David Munns
Costume designers: Gyorgyi Szakacs, Zaklina Krstevska
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Music: Kiril Dzajkovski
Casting director: Milka Ancevska