In 1994, Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski earned an Academy Awards nomination for Before the Rain. I was in the press room waiting for the ceremony to begin when a colleague grabbed me and led me to the desk of a Macedonian journalist. My friend exclaimed to her, “Here’s someone who’s actually heard of your country.” I’m guessing that many film fans have now heard of Macedonia, now known as North Macedonia, considering that the country gained another nomination in 2020 for the documentary Honeyland.
Before the Rain had an unusual structure, weaving among three episodes whose characters interconnect. Manchevski uses the same three-episode structure for Willow (Vrba). The first part takes place in a rural medieval environment, the other two in present-day, urban North Macedonia. They all deal with couples having difficulties conceiving a child.
In the opening episode, a sixteenth-century peasant couple, Donka (Sara Klimoska) and Milan (Nikola Risteski), after five years of lack of success, seek the help of an old woman, Grandma Srebra, (Ratka Radmanovic), known to specialize in such problems. Grandma agrees to ensure that they will produce a bunch of children, but on one condition—that Donka and Milan give her their firstborn so there will be someone to care for her in her old age (which she seems already to have reached). But when it comes time to come for the infant, Milan kills Granny instead.
The other two stories are about two sisters, Rodna (Natalija Teodosieva) and Katerina (Kamka Tocinovski), who, like Donka centuries earlier, have trouble becoming pregnant. Rodna and her husband settle on in-vitro fertilization and are rewarded when Rodna becomes pregnant with twins. However, one of the babies will not be healthy. Because her husband opposes abortion, Rodna is faced with a tragic dilemma.
Meanwhile, Katerina has adopted a five-year-old boy who appears to be unusually intelligent, but who never speaks and never shows love or affection.
And the willow of the title? Like the three heroines, the willow tree bends but doesn’t break, even in the most challenging of conditions.