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Before the Rain

Friday February 24, 1995

     The ancient beauty of the Macedonian landscape in "Before the Rain" is a heartbreaking contrast to the violence within its borders. The expanses--the pure, limitless vistas and star-clustered night skies--are like fairy-tale enclosures for a tale of fratricidal horror. Even though the film deals with the current Balkan crises the landscape keeps drawing you back in time. The ongoing wars, we are made to feel, are as ancient as the terrain.
     Writer-director Milcho Manchevski is astute in letting the landscape figure so massively in his movie. It gives "Before the Rain" a gravity beyond the scope of his script, which is often weighted down with obvious eye-for-an-eye ironies. Manchevski, who was born in Macedonia but has spent most of his professional career working in America on rock videos, has a swift, hokey sense of melodrama and a memory bank crammed with bits from old movies. "Before the Rain"--which is one of the five films nominated this year for a best foreign Oscar--is not an example of untutored amateur folk art. It's a slick piece of work redeemed by a sense of outrage that keeps heating up the shiny, gliding imagery.
     The film is divided into three parts. In the first, "Words," Kiril (Gregoire Colin), a Greek Orthodox monk who has taken a vow of silence, shelters an Albanian girl (Labina Mitevska) in a 12th-Century monastery. When a band of armed Macedonian revengers come looking for her--she is supposed to have killed their brother--Kiril, smitten, takes off with her. They run into her Albanian clan, who, literally, have their own ax to grind.
     In "Faces," the second part, the scene shifts abruptly to London, where Anne (Katrin Cartlidge) who works in a photo agency, is pulled between her conflicting feelings for her estranged husband--a doting, dour Brit (Jay Villiers)--and her lover, Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija), a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who is disgusted by his recent tour of duty in Serbia and wants to return home after 16 years to Macedonia.
     Aleksandar returns to his family in Part III, "Pictures," in which the story, in a roundabout piece of experimentalism, comes full circle. Aleksandar wants to drop out of the horrors he's witnessed--and recorded--but he finds his native village inflamed with the same horror. Families split apart from within. The Christian villagers and their Muslim Albanian neighbors skirmish and shoot each other. In the film's best scene, Aleksandar walks into the Albanian settlement to visit an old girlfriend. The entire sequence has a hair-trigger volatility.
     Manchevski isn't fatalistic, exactly, but it's clear he's condemning the people of both sides for the troubles, and not the politicians or the U.N. "peacekeepers." Besides, the war's lines of demarcation can no longer be contained. The violence in Macedonia erupts into a London restaurant. "Before the Rain" is about the * interconnectedness of the horror.
     The movie has such a rich subject that Manchevski's slickness sometimes seems like a cheapening. The Macedonians, especially in the first part, speak in a kind of elevated pseudo-biblical dialect that makes them seem like stentorian waxworks. Although the culture shock of seeing these brigands wearing Adidas sneakers and listening to rap is real, Manchevski overplays his hand. Would Aleksandar, tootling around on a bicycle back home, really sing out loud "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," mimicking the sequence with Paul Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"?
     Rade Serbedzija is a powerful presence--he played to great acclaim Oedipus Rex and Richard III on the Yugoslavian stage--but his role here is romanticized and hero-worshippy. He's like Rick in "Casablanca," only with a lot more facial hair. The camera dotes on his moody fatalism, while swoony women garland his torso with kisses and he takes deep drags on his cigarette. (As a demonstration of the depths of his anguish, he starts smoking again when he returns home.) Aleksandar has seen too much of war and, by the end of the movie, we've seen too much of Aleksandar.
     But the tragic conflict in which he figures remains in the memory. How could it not?

Before the Rain, 1995. Unrated. Aim productions, Noe productions & Vardar Film, with the participation of British Screen and the European Coproduction fund (UK) in association with Polygram Audiovisual & the Ministry of Culture for the Republic of Macedonia. Director Milcho Manchevski. Producers Judy Counihan, Cedomir Kolar, Sam Taylor and Cat Villiers. Screenplay by Manchevski. Cinematographer Manuel Teran. Editor Nicolas Gaster. Music Anastasia. Production designers Sharon Lamofsky and David Munns. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Kiril as Gregoire Colin. Rade Serbedzija as Aleksandar. Mitre as Ljupco Bresliski. Labina Mitevska as Zamira.

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