One of the great feature debuts, Milcho Manchevski’s 1994 drama Before the Rain announced the arrival of new talent and went straight onto the New York Times Best 1,000 Movies list. Manchevski has been busy ever since, making rap videos, directing episodes of TV shows like The Wire and cranking out films set in the Old West and modern New York.
But in between all that he’s regularly returned to Macedonia to make highly distinctive dramas, often with an episodic structure, as here, and often drawing parallels between one story and another.
In Before the Rain’s first story a monk (Grégoire Colin) who has taken a vow of silence one day finds a fugitive young woman (Labina Mitevska) in his room. He’s Macedonian, she’s an ethnic Albanian, and though he lives what looks like a medieval life, it’s actually the 20th century, where thanks to conflict caused by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc (of which the war in Croatia was the most well known) these two are technically enemies. A ragtag hotheaded Macedonian militia arrives outside the monastery, determined to flush out and kill the “Albanian” within. Inside, with no words spoken, the monk and the fugitive have fallen in love. This will lead to trouble.
Story two takes place in London where Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), who works at a photography agency, breaks off her affair with an award-winning photographer, and then goes to dinner with her husband. She breaks up with him, too, before a spectacular eruption of violence in the restaurant where they’re eating demonstrates that even in cool, urbane London, violence lurks.
And on to story three, the photographer returning to Macedonia, where he finds that the family home is half in ruins and his old Albanian friends don’t want to see him any more. Aleksander (Rade Šerbedžija) has been away for 16 years and now that he’s back he battles in vain to re-assert the old order, where neighbours of different ethnicities got along fine and there was no talk by anyone of being “taken over”. In particular he tries to rekindle his relationship with the love of his life, the ethnically Albanian Hana (Silvija Stojanovska). This will also lead to trouble.
All three stories are beautifully observed, finely detailed character sketches rich in texture. The first and third are shot with an eye for the beauty of Macedonia – golden light suffuses everything – while the London-set story is done in contrasting cold, flat hues.
It’s in the London section that we first realise there’s something not quite right about the timeline. Is Aleksander just back from Macedonia, where he’s shot some more spectacular (and puzzlingly familiar) warzone pictures, or is he yet to go there? Or both? On an urban wall Manchevski gives us a glimpse of a piece of graffiti – “The circle is not round” – a clue that the chronology here is a bit weird, as if the corkscrew logic of MC Escher’s drawings (impossible staircases and the like) applied.
Manchevski gives us plenty to chew on – beauty to be drunk in, plus this odd, spiralised timeline to unscrew – and on top of that the closely observed characters of all involved. The fact that the acting is totally engaging is a bonus, really – Colin (a French actor, so that vow-of-silence gambit really comes in handy) and Mitevska; the charismatic and charming Šerbedžija and talented Cartlidge (whose career was cut brutally short by cancer in 2002, when she was 41); and then Šerbedžija again, as Aleksander tries a one-man UN-peacekeeping negotiation back in Macedonia.
Beneath the many layers, the clever construction and the careful acting is something simple and grim – ethnic loyalties butting up against each other disastrously. It’s the bass drone that rumbles throughout. In this film people in a faraway country want to kill their neighbours. And Manchevski makes us care about that by making this both a puzzle to be solved and a story about individuals, not ethnicities.
Before the Rain – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023