Milcho Manchevski has done it again. His 1994 film, Before the Rain, is a masterpiece of storytelling still analyzed in university film and cultural studies programs around the world. It spins a circular, three-part narrative out of the hatred and violence of the Balkan wars. The focus is on a young monk and a burned-out war photographer who returns to find his village as dangerous as the circle of exploding rifle cartridges young boys ignite around a hapless turtle in an early scene.
In his most recent film, Bikini Moon, Manchevski sets a more linear story in New York City, where he lives, and builds it around a homeless woman of that name, played by the astonishing Condola Rashad. Here, Manchevski plays with the lines between feature film and documentary. A film crew trails Bikini from social service agencies to makeshift shelters on the streets to the suburban house where she believes her lost daughter is in foster care. The members of the crew intervene directly in Bikini’s life, for sex, for charity and for their film. But there is no way to put a frame around Bikini. She is a force of nature, switching in a flash of her eyes from demureness to coquetry to deadpan humor to volcanic rage. When they finally trail her into the Lower East Side basement where she has made her own shelter, her ongoing fascination with the symbol of the praying mantis culminates in a scene that makes you think this is the film The Shape of Water wanted to be and didn’t know how.