Distant thunder

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.

Sometimes the images captured by Aleksander's lens are almost impossible for Anne to look at. She pays for regularly sifting through battlefield dispatches with sleepless nights and fits of nausea, and Aleksander is haunted by constant nightmares of the horrors he has witnessed during his travels across the globe. (Rade Serbedzija, a fiftyish, grey-bearded Macedonian actor and poet, is both a superb actor and a magnetic camera subject--a magnificent ruin of a man with a bone-weary, stoic masculinity and haggard face that seems to have absorbed whole centuries of tragedy; in closeups, his eyes are so full of sadness they seem to be functioning as psychic aerials, picking up horrors in faraway places he hasn't even visited yet.) Anne and Aleksander are drawn together by their knowledge of how animalistic humans can be and by the sneaking suspicion that in earning a living by selling their images for profit, they are slowly becoming dehumanized.

Macedonia-born director Milcho Manchevski stresses the "faces" motif by shooting his actors in some of the most luminous closeups since Ingmar Bergman discovered color. He gets rapturously close to his characters, and his cinematographer, Manuel Teran, lights them and frames them so reverently that when conversations turn especially tense and intimate, we can see beyond facial expressions and tricks of performances and momentarily glimpse the unknowable. Together, the filmmakers and performers create scenes of such emotional opacity that at times we seem to be reading tiny fluctuations of the soul. The episode's title is significant for another, more obvious reason; it prepares us for a story in which characters who have become immune to the emotions in the eyes of others will be awakened in unexpected and frightening ways.

The third episode, "Pictures," manages to weave together the two that precede it, following Aleksander back home to Macedonia, to the same town we saw in the first episode. It is stocked with many of the same characters, but we see them in a different light.

Aleksander is at once removed from his native culture and inside of it; he feels great joy at reentering his hometown and the lives of its inhabitants, but he's concerned that so much time has passed (nearly a quarter-century) that he won't be able to fit in anymore. He's right, of course--you can't go home again. But it wouldn't be right to reveal any more than I already have, because everything that happens in this segment is based on a reversal of audience expectations.

Narratively, Before the Rain is both simple and complex--simple because it sets up situations charged with clear, strong, basic emotions, and complex because it plays with time and space in ways that artfully reinforce the filmmaker's ideas about war, love, pride, vengeance, lust, and mercy. At several points during the film, we are confronted with characters and situations that seem spliced in almost at random. Sorting through the picture after the fact and plugging each bit of information into its proper narrative slot requires a bit of concentration. But unlike Quentin Tarantino, another young director who likes to play around with chronology, Manchevski does what he does for a higher purpose than mere entertainment. He tells his tale this way for the same reason that a carpenter builds a foundation, then a frame, then walls and floors--because his every action reinforces the one that came before, and because every plank, nail, tile, and shingle has meaning and purpose.

Like silent film masters F.W. Murnau and Carl Dreyer, Manchevski's images have a breathtaking simplicity and clarity. He doesn't waste a single foot of film. He lingers on faces, objects, and landscapes for just as long as it takes to extract every iota of dramatic meaning from them, and when he cuts, it always means something. This is the kind of filmmaking that can't be described by words like "craftsmanship" and "professionalism," because sometimes those labels carry a hint of the pejorative; they're often trotted out to praise directors who are primarily concerned with getting the viewer from point "A" to point "B" with as little fuss as possible, but who lack insight into the human condition--directors who are entertainers rather than artists.

A better word for Manchevski's style is "poetic." It's a word that applies to such recent classics as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, Jane Campion's The Piano, Boaz Yakin's Fresh, the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society, and Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans. While very different in tone and subject matter, all of those movies share a style that's simultaneously forceful and understated, uncluttered and dense, clear-eyed and intensely passionate. Each shot means what it means, and it also means several other things.  

In the same way that fine poetry draws emotion and insight from the careful placement of commas, period, and line breaks, Before the Rain draws up unexpectedly profound meanings through subtle camera movements, sound effects, and almost imperceptible shifts in color, light, and shadow. There are so many perfectly realized images in this movie--from the way the camera rises over a goofily grinning Kiril's upturned face during a religious service, finding a visual analog for the elevation of his spirit through prayer, to the sight of a silhouetted steeple tower against a velvety night sky full of unforgiving stars--that it's impossible to list them all here.

The film's view of war is rooted in specifics of place and time--Macedonia and London during the present day--but it reaches for universal truths. Machevski is a humanist and an ironist; one of the film's most satisfying qualities is its ability to feel timeless without ever straining after profundity. There are a number of incidents and lines of dialogue that conjure up thorny social issues people in America and Britain grapple with every day, from the joy we experience when we unexpectedly connect with people we'd otherwise avoid because they don't look or talk the way we do, to the unnamable moral fatigue that comes from living in a world whose ongoing atrocities are fed to us unceasingly by newspapers and TV.

A harrowing conversation between male family members determined to get revenge against a character who killed one of their relatives looks and sounds suspiciously like similar scenes in American 'hood movies. During the London segment, after two transplanted Macedonians have an argument in a restaurant, a character jokingly tells the matre d', "Thank God they weren't from Ulster"--meaning if they hailed from that troubled Irish city, they presumably would have set off a car bomb or committed some other savage, terrorist act. ("I'm from Ulster," the matre d' replies, without missing a beat.)

Of all his characters, Manchevski identifies most closely with the roving photographer Aleksander. Like his fictional creation, Manchevski left his birthplace at a young age, studying filmmaking in New York and making a good living directing music videos and commercials, then becoming politically active again as his home country plunged progressively deeper into violence and despair. He brings two different but complementary sensibilities to his material: a foreign journalist's eye for tiny cultural details and a native son's innate love of the weathered faces of elderly peasants, the sheen of morning light shining on monasteries and farmhouses and outcroppings of rock, and the shockingly rich and varied textures of the land itself. (Cinematographer Teran's images of cliffsides and barren fields are so red they appear to have been soaked in blood.) Manchevski's grasp of how to tell a story through pictures is so instinctive that he seems to be rediscovering the reason movies were created. And at times his technique is so vivid and suggestive that we seem not to be watching his movie, but dreaming it.

But like all great works of popular art, it's possible to appreciate Before the Rain on as simple or complex a level as you please. The literary and filmic devices, the motifs and symbols and allusions, are there for the taking, but Manchevski also allows you to experience the movie as a plain and simple story about human lives in turmoil. He gives you characters worth caring about, develops them so carefully and thoroughly that you never feel you're being prodded to view them as political symbols, and places them in predicaments designed to test their capacities for kindness and cruelty.

If the filmmaker has an overt political goal, it's one that people from any distant corner of the world can appreciate: to remind us that because of advances in transportation and communication, our world is shrinking; that chaos and mistrust are destroying us on every level; and that only by attempting to understand our common emotions can we survive as a species.

His movie is one of the most completely realized rejections of nationalism ever put on film. From first frame to last, in moments of transcendent horror and empathy, Before the Rain reminds us that we are all enemies, siblings, neighbors, and friends, and that the world is a tiny place indeed.

Before the Rain Gramercy. Rade Serbedzija, Gregoire Kolin, Labina Mitevska, Katrin Cartlidge. Written and directed by Milcho Manchevski.

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