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.

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's 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 joy at re-entering his hometown, 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. It wouldn't be right to reveal any more, because everything that happens in this segment is based on a reversal of audience expectations -- on discovering that people we feared and loathed the first time we met them are actually sweet, charming, robust and affectionate human beings who are worthy of our sympathy; and on learning, the hard way, that understanding someone's motives and learning to love them can never prepare you for the atrocities they're capable of committing.

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're 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 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.

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 such as "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." In the same way that fine poetry draws emotion and insight from the careful placement of commas, periods 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, but it reaches for universal truths. Manchevski 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. 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 as his home country plunged into violence and despair. Like Aleksander, Manchevski traffics in self-contained images and worries they might somehow become shorn of their basic meaning, becoming transformed into the visual equivalent of white noise.

So he invests each composition with energy, wit and straightforward emotion, reinventing and reimagining everything he touches, no matter how seemingly insignificant. 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. 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 with 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. If he 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.

Before the Rain. Directed by Milcho Manchevski.
With Gregoire Colin, Rade Serbedzija and Katrin Cartlidge.
Rated R.
114 minutes.


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