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Before the Rains

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // September 16, 2008
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 2, 2008 | E-mail the Author
In Merchant Ivory's production Before The Rains, we're transported to 1930s Kerala, India during the spice exportation boom at the end of the Raj's diminishing rule. The first images that we see are of two men, Henry Moores (Linus Roache, Batman Begins) and T.K. (Rahul Bose), as they outline the pathway for a new shipment route by way of a gorgeously-shot hike through paradise-like hills. That's a key theme utilized for director / cinematographer Santosh Sivan's emotional romantic drama - encroachment of outside forces on the natural rhythm of things. It's a hard conflict since building this road provides jobs for the townspeople and an opportunity to make money from the exports, yet it also sullies their secular tribal habitation. Such is also the conflict that arises with Henry's relationship with an Indian woman, Sajani. Before The Rain parallels the two in an unbelievably shot inspiration that examines the effects of outside elements, both positive and negative, on a nourished cultural society.

The Film:

Make no mistake, even though Rahul Bose and Batman Begins' Linus Roache headline the cast with outstanding performances at the start of the picture, Before the Rains is Sajani's story -- and Nandita Dos does an incredible job at gravitating attention that looms even when she's not present on-screen. Her grace, when captured in the camera, leaves a haunting and passionate imprint. Dos and Roache exhibit raw, passionate energy early in the film, which carries the troubling nature of their relationship along a credible stream throughout the film. As a married British spice tycoon and a passionate Indian woman in a forbidden love, they both craft a believable energy that sells us on the idea of their lurid passion with little to no experience with their characters. This romantic tale isn't a terribly complex one -- difficult, yes, once Moores' wife (Jennifer Ehle) returns from travels abroad with their son, but very straightforward -- which sits against the backdrop of the Indian countryside in poetic fashion.

In design, Before the Rains has to be one of the most ravishing visual experiences I've ever encountered. Santosh Sivan enlisted the perfect cinematographer -- himself -- for the job, and he captures scenes with unrelenting sumptuousness like I've never seen. The encapsulating utopian scenery is as much of a character as each of the key players, as it embodies the beauty that's at risk with too much development. It reminds me of exactly how many different shades of green are present in our spectrum, which certainly was no mistake in the visual design. Though it features sweeping visuals and ridiculously lurid color schemes, it also harnesses the proper isolation that strengthens Moores' resolve to soak into the environment and discover true love. The cinematography is one part of the equation; without the exquisite editing work from Steven Cohen and A. Sreekar Pasao, with a strong concentration on high-personality duality, it wouldn't pack near the punch that it does.

Breadth in emotional context and aesthetic beauty outweigh narrative strength at the start, but Sivan's film becomes increasing more complex and engaging as the story blossoms. Before the Rains shares common traits with John Curran's The Painted Veil, only instead of concentrating on more direct human themes regarding medicinal treatment in Africa and cultural assimilation, it closes in on economic conflicts surrounding spice trade in India and the shunning effects that it has on the British entrepreneurs responsible. Both find concentration on environmental disturbance in establishing a more modern environment, as well as highlighting the havoc that living in a foreign country can cause on those encroaching on the area for different kinds of gain. They're different films in core themes, yet the essence of danger present in questioning the cultural advance in the hands of the scorned "outsider" stirs in each.

What makes Sivan's film special lies in its capability to illustrate culture's power over modern development, as shown by the resonant efforts to adhere to tribal creeds and practices revolving around Ruhal Bose's phenomenally haunting portrayal as T.K.. Then, once it catches the two well-meaning-enough leads in the midst of dangerous conflicts, it takes some harder-edged turns that rustle up a few sparks between the grinding stones of tribal instinct and territoriality. Much is left to interpretation, including an ambiguous beginning and conclusion that lack elaboration on "what, when, and how", but that's part of Before the Rain's reflective nature as a beautifully navigated film rich with prosaic romanticism. It dilutes doubtfulness by making the film a sentimentally absorbing experience instead of an overly-thoughtful one.

Sivan's exploration of interactions, meaningfulness, and boundaries of love are what complicate Before the Rains in absence of a labyrinthine narrative. The most potent element at play is that of choice, something that each and every character faces several times in the film that creeps up in oversights of crime and cultural wronging to the fabric of death itself. Within its choices, there's also a strong glimpse into defragmenting honesty, and the lengths several characters must endure in order to maintain a secret. In that, we're taken through ideology in grand fashion in Before the Rains -- sometimes too stuffy for its own good, others more resonant than hoped for -- in a heartbreaking film that's almost poetry in motion.

The DVD:

Lions Gate brings us Before The Rains in a standard keepcase presentation with attractive coverart mirroring a scene from early in the film. It comes with a matching slipcase that replicates the front and back artwork.

The Video:

Before the Rains' photography shocked me with its capacity to be emotionally breathtaking; this can also be carried over as a description for this exceedingly solid 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Color range was out of this world, exhibiting a ridiculous competence in handling the countless shades of green in the image. There are other colors very present in the film, from deep maroons to radiant teal-ish blues, which stand equally as strong. Detail gets blurry to minuscule levels when too much activity is present on-screen, and a hint of muddy edge enhancement can be seen around some bodies. However, the sheer amount of detail -- present in clothing, wood grains, leaves, dirt, and prop designs -- all render a splendid image. Lions Gate has offered up a great effort in capturing some tremendous visuals.

The Audio:

As enamored as I was with the quality of the cinematography, I was equally as excited about the active usage of the Indian / English 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Sound effect like the buzzing of bugs and the rustling of trees in the wind travel back quite frequently here, while all the activity present at the core of the track resonated well at the front. Verbal clarity does suffer a bit, making it a little difficult to understand some of the English-spoken efforts from the Indian actors, but not to a point where we can't grab the gist of what was being said. Overall, including some surprising usage of lower-frequency effects, Before the Rains sounds quite strong here. An English 2.0 track is also available, as are English and Spanish optional subtitles. The English subtitles for the Indian language, however, are burned into the image.

The Extras:

Feature Commentary with Director Sivan and Linus Roache:
Sivan and Roache sit back and romantically reflect on their time with the film. There's a lot of things to take away from this track, including some historical info from Sivan about his childhood and Roache's observations on editing and such, which resonate with a lot of insight. There are large gaps in between several of the scenes, as well as a few points when the two commentators merely mirror their statements one after another, but the punches they include are quite strong. Sivan enjoys making small comments about the way he likes certain lighting and details in the image, revealing his true passion as a cinematographer. Note: This commentary is NOT listed on the back cover, though it is present.

Also, a Trailer for Before the Rains is included.


Final Thoughts:

Resonant and gut-wrenching in lavishly beautiful fashion, Before the Rains conducts itself as a simple story rich with extrinsic cultural impact. Roache and Bose are both strong as the two lead male characters, but Nandita Dos enchants her audience with engulfing radiance. Santosh Sivan's solidly-directed and incredibly-photographed picture regarding taboo love in '30s India handles itself with sprawling strength that comes firmly Recommended in this low-supplement package from Lions Gate. It's a potent historical love story that retains its freshness by offering great performances and lush cinematography.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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