Distant thunder

A powerful film from war-torn Macedonia brings faraway bloodshed terrifyingly close

Before the Rain, a three-part anthology of stories from the war-torn Balkan nation of Macedonia, is as powerful and passionate an examination of war as Schindler's List. And although there isn't a single dull or unoriginal shot anywhere in the picture, and the film is eloquently performed by an international cast of gifted actors and written with startling precision and elegance, it's important to note that this movie's greatness does not spring merely from its technical excellence.

Its greatness rests in the timeless truths of its narrative--from the sight of flesh and blood characters responding to present-day horrors with the same complexity of emotion felt by survivors from any era of warfare in any country in any century. For a long time after the film's last credit had faded from the screen, I found it difficult to speak; a work of art this finely wrought renders conversation redundant.

How fitting, then, that the title of the film's first segment is "Words." It begins with a dark-eyed, short-haired, barely adolescent girl named Zamira (Labina Mitevska) cresting a ridge in the mountains of Macedonia. She's looking for sanctuary after killing a man from a rival ethnic clan.

Zamira comes from an Albanian family--an important point, because in this movie, ethnicity determines loyalty. Macedonia is a region of the Balkans composed of many different nationalities--Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Gypsies, Serbs, Muslims, and Yugoslavs. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1912, it was divided into three states, then united three decades later as one republic under the Yugoslavian dictator Tito. Then, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Yugoslavia as a nation, the region established itself as an independent country.

Unfortunately, throughout history, the different ethnic groups that inhabited Macedonia had never managed to get along--and the chaos created by the fall of Communism hasn't helped matters one bit. Ancient, buried rivalries are simmering in the open again. The situation has gotten so bad that tiny towns have been split into armed camps separated by free-fire zones.

Pursued by relatives of the man she shot, Zamira decides to take refuge in a monastery inhabited by orthodox Macedonian monks, hiding in a dark corner of an upstairs room where a very young brother, Kiril (Gregoire Kolin, last seen as the mysterious teenage drifter in Olivier, Olivier) lives, sleeps, and studies. Soon after Zamira's arrival, her enemies storm into the middle of a religious service and begin interrogating everyone in sight. When the monks deny having seen the girl, the monastery becomes a miniature occupied territory; the armed men set up camp and refuse to leave until they've caught and killed their quarry.

Kiril is barely older than Zamira (although lean-limbed and strikingly handsome, he still carries himself with the slight hesitance of a teenager getting used to his new, adult body). He has only recently taken his vow of silence and has yet to fully understand what becoming a monk will demand from him. He's a sympathetic soul with big, brown eyes as full of tenderness and understanding as Zamira's. Although Kiril is mute by choice, and neither youth completely understands the other's dialect, because of their age and mutual attraction the two forge an immediate and powerful bond. Their predicament is charged with desire, fear, and primal empathy. Each grows to intensely need the other--Zamira because she's marked for death, and Kiril because he refuses to break his vow of silence and reveal Zamira's whereabouts.

The episode is almost unbearably suspenseful, but the suspense stems from more than simple filmmaking dexterity--the placement of important objects in the frame, the rhythm of quick cuts as bodies move through space toward their destinies. It's suspenseful because it's truly dramatic--meaning that the choices characters make will not be easy. Zamira, Kiril, and the people who surround them are impaled on pins of fate like so many hapless butterflies. They can't decide between a right decision and a wrong one; instead, they must choose between an awful decision and a horrific one, and their actions will occur instinctively, emotionally, for reasons words could never explain.

The second episode, "Faces," shifts locales to the bustling streets of London. A thirtysomething Englishwoman named Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), who works as an editor at a photographic wire service, is struggling to cope with a life that no longer makes sense to her. She's reached a romantic crossroads in her life and must choose between her estranged English husband, Nick (Jay Villiers), and Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija), a shaggy-haired, rambling, Macedonian-born war photographer with whom she had a brief but passionate affair. She has resolved to get back together with her husband just as Aleksander returns to London for a visit; he has resolved to move back to his troubled native land, and he wants to see Anne one last time before he leaves forever.

Once again, the thematic key to this episode lies in its title. Aleksander makes his living photographing faces in war zones, capturing them in moments of misery, pain, and sometimes death. After he's developed them, he sends them to London, where Anne examines them as works of art and items of commerce.

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