Before the Rain (France/United Kingdom/Macedonia, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Time never dies. The circle is not round." As well as being a repeated line in Before the Rain, this statement clarifies director Milcho Manchevski's perspective. The film is an exploration of the vicious circle that is violence in the Balkans, and the way tribal and ethnic bloodshed in that part of the world can spill over into more "civilized" countries.

Before the Rain opens and closes in Macedonia. The middle section -- an interlude of sorts -- takes place in England. The structure of the movie is non-chronological with the conclusion actually occurring about forty minutes into the film. The flow of the narrative follows the "imperfect circle" pattern. Beginning and end meet and merge, but the closure is broken by one very disconcerting (and not so obvious) flash-forward.

What at first appears to be several disparate stories resolves itself into a cohesive single entity, and the characters who start out as Before the Rain's central figures (including a monk played by Olivier Olivier's Gregoire Colin) are ultimately reduced to supporting roles. Most of the film is about -- in one way or another -- Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija), who became involved in the war in Bosnia by taking sides. Now, back from that war-torn place and wracked with guilt for having caused a man's death, he intends to leave England (and his English lover, played by Katrin Cartlidge, late of Naked) for Macedonia in hopes of making a positive difference in the violently unstable country of his birth.

Manchevski, directing his first major feature following a string of music videos, presents his message with a sublime intensity that eludes the film world's Oliver Stones. During the course of Before the Rain, he meticulously dissects the male-dominated Macedonian mindset, then illustrates how modern technology and altruism are impotent when faced with the madness of an ingrained tradition of violence. In a land where men would rather kill their own than give up the fight, what hope is there for peace? Before the Rain isn't explicitly about Bosnia, but it goes a long way towards explaining the "whys" of what's happening there.

The film is as rich in symbols as in narrative. Circles are everywhere, and water takes on its age-old meaning of purification. The titles of Before the Rain's three chapters -- "Words", "Faces", and "Pictures" -- reveal aspects of the thirty-five-odd minutes they each represent.

If there's one weakness in Before the Rain, it's that despite an ambitious story, beautiful cinematography, convincing acting, and a powerful message, character development is surprisingly feeble. Part of the problem is undoubtedly the odd structure of the plot, but even Aleksandar, who has more screen time than anyone else, seems a little hollow. There are instances when he's more the mouthpiece of a philosophy than a unique individual. This is indicative of Before the Rain's most apparent flaw: that Manchevski occasionally lets the "art" of his production obscure its emotional impact.

The visceral effectiveness of Before the Rain is undeniable -- it brings home the global reality of violence without ever glorifying or glamorizing it. The film is loaded with chilling little touches of how this particular circle has trapped humanity. Before the Rain doesn't offer hope. As "Words" reminds us, communications problems are often more fundamental than language differences. In Manchevski's world, when peace exists, it's an exception, and redemption is perhaps a futile gesture.

Before the Rain (France/United Kingdom/Macedonia, 1994)

Director: Milcho Manchevski
Cast: Rade Serbedzija, Katrin Cartlidge, Gregoire Colin
Screenplay: Milcho Manchevski
Cinematography: Manuel Teran
Music: "Anastasia"
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: Some English subtitled Macedonian and Albanian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1