Those glimpses of wounded babies, desolate old women and bombed buildings on the evening news pass through most Americans like air: The war in Bosnia remains a meaningless abstraction located somewhere between Judge Ito's latest pronouncement and Chelsea's latest camel ride.
Milcho Manchevski's beautiful and disturbing Before the Rain probably won't have the power to change that. But insofar as a well-made feature film can dramatize the emotion underlying remote horror, this haunting triptych of stories might serve as a wake-up call. The film was nominated this year for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film, and that can't hurt, either.
Manchevski studied filmmaking at Southern Illinois University and got his start making commercials and rock videos in New York. But his homeland is Macedonia, and that's where two of these three harrowing, interwoven tales of love, war and innocence take place. There could hardly be a more appropriate setting. Under Alexander the Great, this mountainous region of southeastern Europe was one of the great powers of the ancient world, but for more than 2,000 years it has been ruled by a succession of Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars and Serbs. Now, of course, the newly declared Republic of Macedonia has been swept into the ethnic bloodletting that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Three years ago, novelist/journalist/filmmaker Manchevski was basking in the synthetic light of pop fame after his "Tennessee" video for the group Arrested Development won a raft of awards. But when the Macedonians announced their independence, he was drawn home to the magnetic and dangerous subject of disparate people trying to reinvent themselves. Still, the film he has made is surprisingly nondoctrinaire--unless shock at the killing of innocents can be interpreted as doctrine. The power of Before the Rain arises from simplicity and pure emotion--something like the work of the Italian neorealists--but the film also has its share of Joycean epiphanies, along with an exquisite sense of foreboding. Thus the title.
In the first story, called "Words," a young monk (Gregoire Colin) who has taken a vow of silence discovers a fugitive Albanian girl (eighteen-year-old discovery Labina Mitevska) in his cell. While a band of angry partisan guerrillas alternately searches the twelfth-century monastery for her and begs blessings from the old priests, the young man grows ever more torn between his devotion to God and his feelings for the girl. Manchevski and his cinematographer, Manuel Teran, fill the mountain sky with shimmering stars and a fat gold moon, but the monk's battle with shifting alliances and agonizing personal choices reflects the film's preoccupation with the way civil war cruelly divides everything it touches--nations, villages, individual souls.
The middle story, "Faces," unfolds in London, where a photo editor named Anne (Katrin Cartlidge) is selecting pictures from the war in Eastern Europe. She is also involved with two men: her conventional estranged husband (Jay Villiers) and a brilliant, unruly war photographer called Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija). Like the boy in the monastery, Anne also must make a choice.
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When an unexplained argument between strangers in a restaurant erupts into real violence, we are shocked not only by the suddenness of it, but also by its randomness. As in war, this passion and hatred claims bystanders, too.
Manchevski's third tale, "Pictures," brings his film full circle. The photographer Aleksandar has just won the Pulitzer Prize, and his career is peaking, but he chucks it all and returns to Macedonia to seek a kind of peace. The parallels to the filmmaker's own story are clear, and, like him, Aleksandar gets more than he bargained for. In the mountain village of his youth, Christians and Muslims are at each other's throats, members of divided families are menacing each other, and all the old loyalties have been put asunder. While armored U.N. vehicles roll ominously through town, little boys play war with real-life machine guns and a specter of death hangs over the place, cruel and irrational.
For actor Serbedzija, a widely known star in Eastern Europe, Manchevski's dark vision of civil war must have seemed awfully familiar. Serbian by birth, the actor left his native Croatia several years ago after receiving threats on his life, and he remains in exile. "What happens to Aleksandar," he has said, "when cousins take up arms against cousins, has happened to many in the former Yugoslavia, and it could happen to me."
In the mountains where Alexander the Great once reigned, there is no longer any difference between art and life.