28 August 2008

Before the rain
written and directed by Milcho Manchevski
1994 – in Macedonian, Albanian and English with English subtitles
113 minutes – colour
[ Criterion DVD released 2008 ]

I’ve watched this film (in the wonderful recent edition from Criterion) three times over the past few weeks, and I cannot get it out of my head. I’m astonished that this is the first feature from director Milcho Manchevski – this is world-class cinema, crafted with artistry, depth and subtlety, taking on a subject as horrifying as the ethnic / sectarian violence that seems to be staining our world with terrifying, increasing frequency, filling it with imperfect, completely believable human characters, and setting it against a natural backdrop of some of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful locations, stunningly photographed, that a viewer is likely to encounter anywhere. The contrasts – images, events, emotions, values, choices and actions – are stark and sometimes jarring…just like those in the real world. Manchevski has created his story with care and commitment – and he has continued that commitment throughout the twists and turns of an arduous production path that at times left him wondering if the film would ever be finished, emerging with a finished product that any director would be satisfied to call a career-defining work. There is much complexity here – but it never gets in the way of a story that, while placed firmly in its setting, is so universal in its message that it cannot help but resonate within the heart and mind of any viewer anywhere in the world.

Before the rain is subtitled ‘a story in three parts’ – each has its own central protagonists, some of whom overlap, and well-defined environment. As the film progresses and moves from one section to the next, it becomes apparent that the timeline of this work is more than simply non-linear, or circular. Manchevski has taken inspiration – whether conscious or subconscious – from no less an artist than the unique M. C. Escher, constructing something the director calls ‘a circle with a kink in it’, or perhaps a Möbius strip of time. As contrived as this premise might sound at first, rather than distracting viewers from the soul and story of this film, it winds up enhancing it – at the end, when the credits roll, it is almost impossible not to ponder what one has seen, to replay it in the mind, to discuss it with others. And with a theme as vital as the seemingly endless cycle of violence that we human beings seem intent on inflicting on ourselves as a race, perhaps concentration, decompression and dissection of what has been seen, heard and felt over the length of this experience would do us more than a little good. It certainly won't end or go away if we ignore it.

The film begins with a quote from Serbian / Bosnian poet Mehmedalija ‘Meša’ Selimović (1910-1982) : ‘With a shriek, birds flee across the black sky, people are silent, my blood aches from waiting.’ Manchevski’s title itself, this quote from the epigraph of one of Selimović’s poems, repeated mentions of a rain that is expected, and other references that are imbibed with a sense of heightened anticipation, fill the film and the viewer with a tension that slowly builds to its climax. Several times the image of startled birds presages an event, or the arrival of a person, or lends a sense of foreboding to various scenes.
Part one (entitled ‘Words’) takes place in Macedonia – a monastery and the surrounding grounds, to be exact, which, from appearances, could be situated in any time during the past several centuries. It is only when we see a jet’s vapor trail in the sky that the scene comes firmly to rest in the present – but as this image is contrasted with the ancient painted icons and the darkened, serene architecture and lighting of the chapel and the monks’ quarters, there remains an undercurrent feeling of timelessness that pulls like a riptide, which lies on the landscape like a morning mist. A young monk – Father Kiril (Grégoire Colin) – is picking tomatoes in a garden, his face and posture radiating a sense of peace, sure in the knowledge that he is exactly where he belongs. An older priest approaches and begins speaking to him, making small talk about the weather. 'The flies are biting,' he says. 'It's going to rain.' As Kiril stands to walk with him, the elder man gestures across the plain below them and adds, 'It's already raining over there.' As they walk along the mountain path that leads from the monastery itself to the nearby chapel, the rolling sound of distant thunder is heard. The old man says, 'Thunder always gives me a jolt. I fear they've begun shooting here, too.' They walk past a group of children playing at war, using turtles as tanks, sitting in a circle, an apt visual metaphor for the just-referenced cycle of violence. Kiril's brother priest muses, 'Time never dies. The circle is not round'. This phrase recurs, in one form or another, in other parts of the film. A lightning strike in the distance is followed by its accompanying clap of thunder. The old man says, 'I nearly took a vow of silence like you. But this heavenly beauty merits words.' The natural panorama visible behind them is the perfect backdrop for his statement.

After the service, as Kiril is in his cell preparing for bed, he is shocked as he sits on his bunk to find it occupied. A young woman – her gender not apparent at first due to her short hair, slim build and the lighting – has taken refuge there. She speaks Albanian, Kiril speaks Macedonian – each of them is frightened at the circumstances in which they have found themselves. He understands enough from her manner that she is hiding from some sort of danger, and makes the decision to shelter her. Still unsure of his intentions, her trust begins to warm at his gift of fresh tomatoes (he has correctly guessed that she is hungry). A beautiful, effectively composed shot – one of many in this incredible film – captures her, out of focus, crouching in the dark across the moonlit room, with Kiril lying on his bunk, his back to her, his features clearly defined, smiling at the sound of her eating the tomatoes. In Albanian, she offers, ‘My name is Zamira’, and, after a pause, her judgment : ‘You are good’.

Kiril’s choice to hide the young woman in the face of the irreversable implications of his action on both of them is the central theme of the first part of the film. He has turned a corner on the path of his life from which there is no turning back. Armed men come to the monastery in search of the the girl – ‘The whore killed our brother’, they say. The elder priest attempts to calm them – the old and the new are contrasted again when the apparent leader of the armed men says, ‘An eye for an eye – blood is in the air’, to which the priest replies, ‘Turn the other cheek’. After attempting to dissuade them – and after receiving assurances, in private, from the other monks that there is no girl there – the head priest agrees to allow them search the premises. The men, while outwardly showing respect and reverence towards the priests, procede to ransack the place, leaving its traditional solitude shattered. Kiril’s tension increases as they prepare to search his cell. The director cranks this up subtly by not showing the activity directly, but by having the camera remain with Kiril on the floor below. The sounds of their search – the rough footsteps, furniture being dragged across the floor objects being thrown about and broken – filter down to the anxious monk. The camera looks up, and through the gaps between the floorboards motes of dust drift down into the light, dislodged by the men above. They return empty-handed – the girl has not been found, much to Kiril’s surprise and relief.

The searchers are not convinced, however, and refuse to leave the area of the monastery, posting a guard outside, waiting. Kiril returns to his cell to find it turned upside-down. In another old-new contrast, one of the intruders is seen outside the walls of the ancient structure, dancing to the sounds of the Beastie Boys blaring from his transistor radio. That evening, as Kiril lies on his cot, we can see the shadows of rain, running down the window opposite, play across his face. He starts from his sleep and sits up to see Zamira standing in the room. Rubbing his eyes, he looks again and realizes that he is dreaming – she is not there. A bit later, this time without the ghosts of rain on his face, he awakens again and sees her – this time the apparition is real, and she is indeed there. The next morning, two of the elder monks enter his cell unexpectedly and discover her – they feel they have no choice but to expel both the girl and Kiril from the monastery. Although Kiril and Zamira, the very picture of cast-out innocents being thrown into the world, manage to sneak past the sleeping guard, they soon encounter an equally dangerous foe – members of the girl’s family and villagers, including her grandfather and brother. Their animosity toward her is open – they consider her to be a troublemaker, her grandfather repeatedly calling her ‘whore’ and ‘slut’. It is not a pretty confrontation, and the outcome is bleak from the start.
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The second part of the film is entitled ‘Faces’, and the setting moves to bustling, modern London. A brief shot of a brick wall, acting as a thread connecting the two parts, shows scrawled graffiti that echoes the phrase spoken by the old monk in the first part of the film: 'Time never dies. The circle is not round.' One of the main characters at the centre of part two is Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), who is employed at a news photo agency – she is married, but is estranged from her husband and involved in an affair with Aleksandar Kirkov (Rade Šerbedžija), a Macedonian-born photographer whose work in the theatre of the Balkan Wars has recently won him a Pulitzer Prize. He returns from his assignment in Bosnia unexpectedly and announces to Anne that he has resigned his position. Shocked by this revelation, she presses him for a reason – she understands both him and his passion for his work well enough, to know that something serious has happened to drive him to such a decision. She begs, ‘What happened, Alex? What happened to you in Bosnia…?’, to which he quietly replies, ‘I killed.’ He has always staunchly refused to ‘take sides’ in any conflict from which he is reporting, considering himself to be a neutral window through which the world can peer. Without explaining any further, it is apparent that he feels he has crossed that line, which he has long vowed never to do. He is broken, he is burned out – he is determined to return to his home in Macedonia, which he last visited 16 years before, and to take Anne with him, to live out their lives together there.
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Anne is unable to bring herself to go with him on such short notice – there are complications in her life, not the least of which is her husband, that she feels cannot be resolved satisfactorly enough to leave immediately. She begs him, ‘…be patient with me’ – he has made up his mind to go back, with or without her, and replies, ‘Have a nice life…don’t forget to write’, and walks away.

The violence that people see on television news programs, and in newspaper and magazine photographs, can seem like another world – but sadly, more and more, that violence has a disturbing way of finding a crack in the wall and worming its way into everyday lives and activity. This is the infection that finds Anne and her husband Nick as they dine in a quiet, refined London restaurant. He thinks she has asked him there to attempt a reconciliation...but she reveals to him that she wants a divorce. As they work their way through this discussion, their private tension naturally mounts, and it is accentuated by frequent camera cuts between them, other diners, and an additional drama that develops when a man enters and begins talking with a waiter – both of them speaking in a foreign language, in tones too low to heard clearly (their dialogue is not subtitled, inferring that the viewer can learn all that is needed from the rhythm and pitch of their speech). The conversation between these two men becomes louder and more heated, growng into an abusive argument, with the man repeatedly tossing currency into the face of the waiter. The maître-d’, attempting to restore order, intervenes and tells the waiter that he should leave and not come back – effectively firing him – and that he should take his friend with him. The angry words escalate further into an all-out brawl, and customers scatter. Subdued by a number of other employees, the man leaves, only to return a few minutes later with the intent of wreaking even more violent havoc, spraying the room with gunfire. The ensuing carnage plays out so quickly that its over almost before it begins – yet, as is the case with scenes such as this, at the same time it seems to last forever.
Part three (‘Pictures’) sees a return to Macedonia – but instead of the tranquil setting of the ancient monastery, our first view is of a modern jet landing in Skopje. The subdued blue, moonlit hues that visually ruled much of part one are replaced by scenes brightly lit by sunlight, as if to imply that events are to be revealed more openly, unable to remain hidded, unavoidably seen by newly-opened eyes. Aleksandar has returned, and after a ride in an old bus along dusty rural roads to his old village, finds himself welcomed not by family and friends, but by a young thug brandishing an automatic weapon (one of the armed men who come to the monastery in part one), demanding to know where he is going. Alex turns to walk away and ignore him, but finds the youth in his path again, threatening to shoot him. The photographer sighs and says, ‘You’ll hurt yourself’, and before the boy can react, snatches the gun away from him, much as one would take a toy from an unruly child. ‘Anyone home?’ asks Alex, gently slapping the boy on the head. He slings the gun over his shoulder and continues into the village, leaving the young man hurling insults at him from behind. He makes his way down the narrow dirt lanes that are etched into his memory, pausing at one house and reaching up into a recess in the wall, retrieving a water pistol that he had apparently left their as a child. There is a sense of watching a classic American western as he walks along : villagers are reluctant to speak with him beyond a nod or a brief spoken greeting, or to meet his eye for more than a second. Startled birds take to the air, and we see a shot of a child's swing, in motion, apparently just vacated at the approach of a stranger.
When he reaches his former house, he finds much of it roofless – the walls are standing, but the structure shows a weary, harshly-weathered visage that is the architectural equivalent of seeing the scars (both physical and emotional) of warfare on the faces of human beings who have endured such horror. Alex shakes his head, laughing silently at himself for ever imagining that he would find anything different after all this time, especially considering the events that have transpired in his absence.

After spending the night in his old bed, he re-connects with his cousin Zdrave and old friend Mitre (the latter turns out to be the uncle of the young man who had challenged Alex on his arrival). The sense that things have changed more than he imagined in Macedonia sinks in more and more as he spends time with his old acquintances – the ethnic and religious hatred that has cloaked other areas of the former Yugoslavia in blood and death has begun to spread its stain here as well. Christians and Muslims (Macedonians and Albanians, respectively) distrust and dislike each other, and have gradually grown physically apart, forming separate villages. The tensions that such feelings engender threaten to erupt into full-scale civil war at any moment – all that is left is for the fuse to be lit. When he announces at a welcoming dinner that he has come home ‘for good’, his words are met with disbelief and gentle ridicule. He is told that things have changed, which he begins to believe more and more as events progress toward what seems to be, sadly, an inevitable conclusion.

One person Aleksandar is determined to see is a woman named Hana, a former sweetheart for whom he has continued to harbor a deep love since their days in school together. He knows that she married after he was home the last time, and that she is now a widow. He has brought gifts for her, her father, and her two children as a token of respect and good will. His relatives and friends advise him to stay away from her – because she’s a Muslim – but he remains headstrong. When he walks into her village, his presence is challenged by armed men from the other side of the conflict, who immediately recognize that he is not one of their own. He manages to have a visit with her father that is courteous, but strained, despite the old man’s welcoming words and shared comments about the 'bad situation'. Hana brings a tray of refreshments into the room, but hardly speaks to him beyond a quiet welcome. In an almost subliminal moment, we see a young woman, Hana’s daughter peering around the corner at the guest, shooed away rapidly by her brother – it is Zamira, from part one of the film. The young man, Ali, is called into the room by his grandfather and is ordered to welcome Aleksandar. Instead, he glares at the guest and asks, 'Why is he here?' When the old man insists that his grandson kiss the photographer’s hand, the young man instead says, ‘I’ll slit his throat.’ He is gruffly dismissed by his grandfather. As Aleksandar walks away from the house at the end of his visit, he stops and looks back, as if into his past – he sees Hana in a window watching him. After a poignant look is exchanged, she lets fall the sheer curtain she has held up in order to peer out, a visual reminder of the tangible veil that divides their two cultures – it seems so fragile, but it keeps them apart as if it were a brick wall.

It is during this part of the film that the incident that caused Alex to resign his position is revealed. Attached to a group of fighters in Bosnia, he had complained to their leader that he wasn’t ‘getting any action’. The soldier subsequently pulled a prisoner (in a semi-Hitchcokian twist, this prisoner was portrayed by Malcho Manchevski, the director, since the assigned extra did not show up for work that day) from a line of detainees and shot him in the head in front of Aleksandar, coldly asking, ‘Did you get that?’ The photographs were taken – and with that event, his life changed forever. His long-held vow not to ‘take sides’ had been shattered in the space of a few seconds – if he had not killed the man directly, with his own hand, he felt responsible for the man’s death, and it was too much for him to bear. He writes a letter to Anne, explaining, 'My camera killed a man. I took sides.' He tells her that the photos, copies of which he has left with her, belong to her now, not to him. He wants no more part of them, but he still bears the guilt, which hangs around his neck like an invisible millstone.
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The path down the road to greater violence opens wider when Mitre’s brother Bojan is attacked with a pitchfork – Alex arrives at the victim’s house just in time to watch him die, surrounded by his grieving family. As the photographer stands in the doorway to the death room, watching Bojan’s life literally slip from him, his blood dripping over the edge of the bed and onto the floor, he raises one hand to his face, in an unconscious gesture that is unmistakably that of snapping a picture – complete with the click of the shutter from the absent camera. Afterward, as he and the doctor walk away, mulling the situation as it exists in the country, they encounter a party of the dead man’s relatives and friends on their way to mete out their own brand of vigilante justice on a young Albanian girl who has been accused by local children after seeing her with Bojan prior to the attack. Whether the girl was even involved, or whether the attack was done in self-defense, perhaps in the face of an attempted sexual assault, is never considered. The seething prejudices cloud the air and narrow rational sight, removing any hope of objective assessment of cause and guilt, in effect pouring gasoline on smouldering embers. Aleksandar and the doctor sit to have a smoke (even though Alex has given up the habit) and ponder the situation. Hearing the medical man express his thoughts on the inevitability of the cycle of violence, Aleksandar declares, ‘You’re as crazy as the rest of them’ – the doctor nods and replies, ‘I’m still here…in this asylum.’

That night, in a visual reprise of Kiril’s dream from part one, Aleksandar is seen in his bed with rain shadows on his face – he is awakened by a noise and sits up to see Hana in the room. Just as in the earlier scene, when he rubs his eyes and looks again, she is gone. A few minutes – or hours – later, he is awakened again. This time she is really there, and tells him that her daughter is missing – the very girl that the vigilantes are out to capture. She asks Alex, ‘Don’t you see what is happening here?’ He replies, ‘I see.’ She counters with ‘No – you just watch.’ When he asks what he can do, she says, ‘Help me. As if she were your own.’ Hana does not go so far as to tell Alex that he is Zamira’s father – but the unvoiced possibility is left hanging in the air like a scent that won’t go away. The weight of its implication is in his eyes.
The next day, he goes to the sheepfold where he suspects the group is holding the girl. The same man who was seen asleep at his ‘post’ outside the monastery in part one is slumbering again, with an automatic weapon in his lap, at the door. Aleksandar strides in – this shot looking very much like something John Ford might have composed – and finds her. His cousin Zdrave tries half-heartedly to stop him – Alex admonishes him for his part in this dangerous game, saying, ‘Shame on you. She’s a child. A child.’ He wraps a cloak around her and begins to walk her away, with the intent of returning her to her family. As the others come to the realization that their prisoner is being taken from them, that their 'justice' is in danger of being denied, Mitre begins goading Zdrave to stop them, calling him a coward – and yet another confrontation between neighbours and relatives is set up. As the climax plays out, the ‘Möbius timeline’ connects and becomes clearer – but as the director says, it is ‘a circle with a kink’, containing elements that are deliberately left in an ‘impossible-to-connect’ state – more aspects for the viewer to consider.

This film is marvellous and a wonder to behold – with all of the beauty of its photography viscerally opposed to the violence that occurs or is implied, it’s a clear portrait of the dialectical nature of humanity’s aspiration to end war and violence and its seeming inability to break the chain of death and destruction. Instead of leaving one with a mood of despair, however, it gives cause for reflection on the causes of ethnic and religious hatred, as well as consideration of ways to stop the cycle. After all, one broken link can destroy a chain. Milcho Manchevski has brought forth a true masterwork here in his first feature film. It cannot fail to move the viewer both emotionally and intellectually; it is intelligently conceived and brilliantly executed by all concerned, yet it is not so ‘lofty’ a film that its message and theme are beyond the grasp of anyone. This is the first feature film shot in Macedonia after the break-up of Yugoslavia – many obstacles were encountered during production, including the sudden loss of one of the principal investors, and the project almost didn’t make it to completion. It went on to win the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, as well as garnering a nomination as ‘Best foreign language film’ at the Oscars that year. (Manchevski's latest film, Shadows, has been nominated for the 2008 Oscars in this same category.) The budget for Before the rain was comparatively small by contemporary standards – under $3 million – and several times during filming the crew had to scramble to find a way to accomplish the director’s aims – but after seeing it several times, I have to say that it’s an unqualified success. Additionally, Criterion’s treatment of the DVD release is predictably laudable. This is a superb, stunningly beautiful restored digital transfer, accompanied by several special features including an informative interview with the director, as well as a revelatory second-channel commentary by him along with film critic Annette Insdorf that runs the length of the film.

This is a film that I am very pleased to have in my collection – I’m sure I will return to it again and again through the years to come, with new discoveries and subtleties revealed with each viewing. It is one of the most moving works of cinema I have ever experienced – I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’ll end with a trailer – but keep in mind as you watch that this is a decidedly low-resolution embed from YouTube, and that it doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the beauty of this film…

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