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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 comprising many different groups -- Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Gypsies, Serbs, Muslims and Yugoslavs. Following the end of the Cold War, Macedonia, once part of Yugoslavia, established itself as an independent country. Unfortunately, throughout history, the ethnic groups that inhabit Macedonia have never managed to get along -- and the chaos created by the fall of Communism hasn't helped matters. Ancient, buried rivalries are simmering out in the open again.

Fleeing from those rivalries, 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 Colin), 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 occupied territory; the armed men set up camp and refuse to leave until they've 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 of him. He's a sympathetic soul with 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.

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. Their actions 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, has reached a romantic crossroads in her life and must choose between Nick (Jay Villiers), her estranged English husband, and Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija), a shaggy-haired, rambling, Macedonian-born war photographer with whom she's had a brief but passionate affair. Just as she resolves to get back together with her husband, Aleksander returns to London for a visit; he's decided to move back to his troubled native land, and he wants to see Anne one more time before he leaves forever.

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 are almost impossible for Anne to look at. She pays with sleepless nights for sifting through Aleksander's battlefield dispatches, while Aleksander himself is haunted by nightmares of the horrors he has witnessed. (Rade Serbedzija, a fiftyish, gray-bearded Yugoslavian 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.) Anne and Aleksander are drawn together by their knowledge of how animalistic people can be, and by the suspicion that by selling their images for profit, they're slowly becoming dehumanized.

Macedonia-born director Milcho Manchevski stresses the "faces" motif by shooting his actors in some of the most luminous close-ups 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. This episode's title is significant for another 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.

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