Having impressed with The Terrorist (1999) and Asoka the Great (2001), cinematographer-turned-director Santosh Sivan makes his English-language debut with Before the Rains. Set in Kerala in southern India in 1937, the action centres on spice baron Linus Roache, as he tries to secure from banker John Standing the funding for a road that will enable him to expand his business. A committed colonialist, Roache plans to share his wealth with factotum Rahul Bose. But the project is endangered when Roache is spotted with his housemaid mistress Nandita Das and Bose has to devise an elaborate cover-up to maintain appearances with the locals and prevent memsahib Jennifer Ehle from learning the truth.

Once upon a time, the legend Merchant-Ivory on a Raj-era drama guaranteed quality. However, it's now seemingly being used as a badge of convenience, as Ismail Merchant is long dead and James Ivory had nothing to do with the making of this worthy, but achingly dull period piece. About as sensitive and sincere as a Hollywood soap opera and lacking even an ounce of Bollywood panache, this wastes both a willing cast and a breathtaking locale, which is photographed with all the imagination of a geographical survey. Even had it been made in 1937, this would have seemed stilted and stale. Indeed, there’s more energy and fidelity to life in Año uña, and that’s composed entirely of photographs.

Following in the footsteps of his august father Alfonso (whose credits include Y tu mamá también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Jonás Cuarón adopts a wholly innovative approach in this homage to Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi gem, La Jetée. Cuarón took the snaps over the course of a year and organised them into a storyline that chronicles the blossoming relationship between American exchange student Eireann Harper and Diego Catano, the 14-year-old son of her Mexico City landlady.

At the outset, the technique of using voiceovers to animate the still sequences feels a touch self-conscious. But the initial inconsequentiality of Harper’s self-obsessed musings about her disastrous love life and her need to extract the best out of every experience and Catano’s immature prattlings about an ingrowing toenail and his agonising crush on the inaccessible gringa eventually gives way to the touching realisation that this unlikely couple has more in common than either first thought.

Albanian emigrée Arta Dobroshi has her own change of heart in The Silence of Lorna. Redemption is the perennial theme of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, so it’s inevitable that Dobroshi will see the error of her ways when scheming cabby Fabrizio Rongione plots an ‘accidental’ overdose for her junkie husband, Jérémie Renier, so she can marry a Russian mobster for his residency papers. Yet the unpredictability of life still intrudes upon this neo-realist thriller, which even contains its moments of levity, as Dobroshi tries to fake spousal abuse to hasten the divorce that will render murder unnecessary.

With her crisis of conscience clashing with the dawning realisation that she may never open a cherished café with footloose lover Alban Ukaj, Dobroshi sustains a mix of naive ambition, reluctant complicity and flinty pragmatism that, even during the melodramatic denouement, proves as authentic as the soul-destroying Liège settings.

Special People is one of those minor, home-made movies that lands a slot on the UK release schedule to the amusement of some and the amazement of many more. But this tale of disability is not just an enjoyable picture, it also has the gumption to cast disabled actors in the leading roles.

Reduced to teaching film-making at a suburban community college, failed documentarist Dominic Coleman sees his hopes of exploiting some wheelchair-bound students to make a heart-warming social statement unceremoniously dashed when wannabe auteur David Proud, mollycoddled Robyn Frampton and Cockney car thief Jason Maza prove to have minds of their own during the location shoot of a metaphorical scenario about life being an uphill struggle.

The bulk of the melodrama centres on Maza’s conflicted attitudes to disability and his feelings for feisty dystonic dancer Sasha Hardway, while the comedy comes from Coleman’s inability to accept either his artistic limitations or the loss of girlfriend Lucinda Raikes to successful rival, Matthew Dunster. But the overall appeal lies in the non-patronising exposé of able-bodied preconceptions and the gentle debunking of the preciousness of British `message’ cinema.

Finally, there’s Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Skirting countless issues of genuine fascination, Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti seem more intent on being two of the lads than objective documentarists. Thus, this profile of Iraq’s sole head-banging band, Acrassicauda (from the Latin for `black scorpion), seems more intent on Middle Easternising This Is Spinal Tap than on taking the cultural temperature of a country riven by religious and political factionalism.

Sunni bassist Firas al Lateef is a compelling character, whose marriage to a Shi’ite woman embodies his detestation of sectarian agitation. But Alvi and Moretti prefer to dwell on the combo’s lack of exposure and, thus, lose any sense of journalistic significance by adopting a ‘you guys are crazy’ approach to the pitiful need that prompted some of the musicians to sell their instruments following a debut recording session in Damascus.