Film Reviews

Short Cuts on Before the Rains and My Brother Is an Only Child

Before the Rains

Directed by Santosh Sivan. Written by Cathy Rabin and Dan Verete. Starring Linus Roache, Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle. Opens Friday.

British plantation owner and colonialist extraordinaire Henry Moores (Linus Roache) fancies himself the cowboy of Kerala, cavorting around the jungle with his Indian mistress, Sajani (Nandita Das) as he makes plans to expand his operations by branching out into spices: "Today, tea; tomorrow...cinnamon!" Coyly placed portents (a crushed robin's nest, a prominently displayed pistol) assure us that something is destined to go awry, and indeed, Henry's life begins to unravel almost immediately: Labor unrest thwarts his plan to build a transport road, even as his sharp-eyed wife (the wonderfully headstrong Jennifer Ehle) joins him in India, and Sajani's brutal husband starts to suspect that she's been unfaithful. Henry is less a character than a metaphor for imperialism; despite his buttoned-up bravado, he can't face the consequences of his carelessness with both Sajani and Kerala itself. As you might expect from a Merchant Ivory production, Before the Rains is saddled with a predictable lushness—even a streak of blood on a dirty window is aestheticized until it looks like stained glass—and the sensuality here can crowd out the sense. Still, director Santosh Sivan imparts a vastness and a sense of wonder to the film, qualities reminiscent of a Thomas Cole painting: They remind you why the Brits thought conquering India was a good idea in the first place. —Julia Wallace

My Brother Is an Only Child

Directed by Daniele Luchetti. Story and screenplay by Luchetti and Stefano Rulli, based on the novel Il Fasciocomunista by Antonio Pennacchi. Starring Elio Germano and Riccardo Scamarcio. Opens Friday.

The family as microcosm of a divided country: Two brothers "come of age" in late-'60s Italy as political strife reaches their provincial Latina (a city laid out by Mussolini's government). A bounding prologue shows younger Accio entering adolescence in seminary school, already a waiting vessel for any guiding ideology, begging his priest to relieve him from the temptation of treasured wank material. At home, his older brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) has become a Communist organizer, with looks and ardor scoring him plenty of revolutionary ass. Grown up a couple years, Accio—looking to big bro with an ambivalent combination of envy and upstart competitive contempt—applies for his Fascist card. That sibling break is exacerbated by Accio's unrequited lust for one of Manrico's disposable girlfriends. If expectedly cynical about junior black-shirt hooliganism, Daniele Luchetti's film is also ambivalent about how piggishness takes the guise of "free love" among the left, and deadpan funny with its "de-fascisized" performance of "Ode to Joy" at a student-occupied conservatory. Tumultuously shot "rawness" is the stylistic house rule, but it's Elio Germano's Accio who vitalizes the film: He's hyper-reactive, flickering between brash, bashful, playful and awkward—offering a Swiss Army knife performance that's diverse and yet totally unified. —Nick Pinkerton

How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer

Written and directed by Georgina Riedel. Starring Lucy Gallardo, Elizabeth Peña and America Ferrera. Opens Friday.

Writer-director Georgina Garcia Riedel's feature debut is so good for so long that it breaks the heart to watch the film lose its way. Opening with silent, static shots of the characters' sleepy Arizona community, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer orients you to the marginal lives of three generations of single Garcia women—widowed grandmother Doña (Lucy Gallardo), divorced mother Lolita (Elizabeth Peña) and virgin daughter Blanca (America Ferrera)—who will soon be experiencing a series of tentative romantic encounters. It's a testament to Riedel's talent that their complicated love affairs become an opening to examine small-town poverty, female sexuality and the ways we learn about relationships from our family's mistakes. But after first resisting the urge to make the Garcias' misadventures adorable, Riedel turns her naturalistic drama into Sex and the City, coupling the nicely nuanced women with caricatured men who are either lovable saints or horny buffoons. The exception is Blanca's unpredictable roundelay with a dashing but manipulative out-of-towner (Leo Minaya)—indeed, theirs is the only relationship that possesses the random strangeness of real life, sparking hope that Riedel will continue to mine similarly compelling terrain in the future by trying to understand her male characters as deeply as she does their female counterparts. —Tim Grierson

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Tim Grieson