Tribeca ’08: Before the Rains (review)

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The Imperialism of Men

Ugly time. Beautiful design. I don’t mean that facetiously. British colonial style is gorgeous, all mosquito netting and lazy ceiling fans and rattan lawn chairs and linen and khaki fashions, even it is a cluelessly lovely mask of hiding — at least to invading eyes — the fetid horrors of raping, pillaging imperialism, while also, at the same time, suggesting a certain appealing exoticness. It’s all adventure and romance, and if things go bad, well, you can always go home, and never mind the locals, who’re just primitives anyway, however charming.
So here we have a beautiful film about the waning years of British ugliness in India, one chock full of all those contradictions and lies the invaders tell themselves about how they’re doing the right thing, and how the invadees struggle to maintain themselves as individuals and as a culture, or struggle to accept and welcome the invaders, and how everybody ends up miserable in the end.

Henry Moores (Linus Roache: The Namesake, Find Me Guilty) is a British planter looking to expand his little empire with some new spice fields, which means he’s got to get a road built through the mountains before the monsoon rains come (a half-done road will just get washed away). Sajani (Nandita Das: Provoked: A True Story) is his housekeeper, a local woman who comes up from the village every day to cook and clean, tasks that need doing more than ever since Henry’s wife, Laura (Jennifer Ehle: Possession, Sunshine), has been away home back in England. You see where this is going. They’re both gorgeous, vital people not about to have their passion denied by details such as spouses — she’s married, too, but her husband is a violent contrast to the much gentler Henry — and cultural taboos.

We don’t know who seduced whom: we’re the ones who get seduced by Before the Rains from the get-go. Renowned Indian director and cinematographer Santosh Sivan (Bride & Prejudice), in his first English-language movie, introduces us to Henry and Sajani as lovers in a scene that may be one of the most erotic things I’ve ever seen on film. There’s absolutely no nudity, it’s not graphic in the least, but it is smokin’ hot. Ouch.

But then, you know, after the seduction comes reality, and the film never touches that level of easy, joyful ardor again. Which is the point. Rains — the script is by Cathy Rabin — solidifies into a fierce, uncompromising critique of, well, Henry himself, as a symbol of nonchalant imperialism, and maybe even of just men on the whole no matter where they’re building their roads or thrusting their penises. Which makes this one of the most sneakily feminist movies I’ve seen in a while. Henry makes me think of a female friend of mine who once lamented that no man had ever loved her enough to go out of his way for her — a complaint I think many women would recognize. For though Henry is romantic enough inside the cocoon of his secret relationship with Sajani, the cocoon is not the real world, and as soon as that intrudes… Hey, Henry loves Sajani, he says, but not enough to, you know, actually risk anything for her. He loves her as long as it’s convenient for him, just as he’s willing to respect the native workers building his road, and the customs of this land he has invaded, just as long as it’s convenient for him. Just as long as none of it infringes upon his needs and his desires.

This is a movie made up of shivery delicious moments, beautiful little artistic ahas! that make you remember why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Like when Rahul Bose, as Henry’s assistant, T.K., an Indian man educated by the Brits and now caught between two cultures, must confront his own conscience during a ritual that looks bizarre to Western eyes, and Sivan uses that character on the border to suck us into it and make us believe it. Like when Das lets her own natural luminosity dim as Henry’s wife returns and Sajani can no longer allow herself to glow in Henry’s presence, lest their secret be revealed.

But the best moment, after that one astonishingly erotic scene, may be the one in which Henry’s true colors out themselves. It happens in the slightest shift of light in his eyes, and it’s hard to imagine the role more perfectly cast than with Roache, who can be simply chilling in how he turns so deftly from holding your sympathy to making you question everything you think you know about his character. (I’m hooked again on Law and Order, on which Roache is now playing the district attorney, because I keep hoping for moments like that from him, and I’m usually rewarded with at least one in every episode.)

Henry is such a rat, if a handsome one, and one so used, obviously, to getting his way, that it’s easy to feel like you want to enjoy his downfall. But Roache makes him so human that I’m not even sure we can call him a villain even if he does deserve it. And that’s a very interesting place for a feminist movie to be. Because Before the Rains isn’t about making a man suffer, but opening his eyes so that he can see the suffering he’s caused.

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Ide Cyan
Ide Cyan
Fri, May 09, 2008 6:04pm

You make me really want to see this film. (Linus Roache starring in it doesn’t hurt, either.)

Sat, May 10, 2008 10:48am

And that’s a very interesting place for a feminist movie to be. Because Before the Rains isn’t about making a man suffer,

Oops, shoulda been clearer hear. Of course I’m not suggesting that feminism is about making men suffer — I was intending to say that pseudo-feminist movies often misunderstand feminism as being about making men suffer. (I’m thinking about *Fatal Attraction,* which this movie bears a small resemblance to, in a certain way.)