“Time never dies,” one character tells another near the beginning of Milcho Manchevski’s searing Before the Rain. “The circle is not round.” It is the notion of time being cyclical, not linear, that Manchevski (director of Arrested Development’s video for “Tennessee”) explores using the age-old Muslim vs. Christian conflict to demonstrate that violence begets nothing more than violence. After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994 and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, Before the Rain, set mostly in Macedonia and in London, raised worldwide awareness of the deteriorating conditions and genocide rampant in the former Yugoslavia. A decade removed from that conflict, it is possible to see the film for what it is: a simple parable claiming that no good could ever come from killing.
Told in three distinct sections, the story centers around two fractious communities in rural Macedonia -- the native Orthodox Christians and the Muslim Albanians. When the young Macedonian priest, Kiril (the angelic Grégoire Colin), shelters an Albanian girl (Labina Mitevska) accused of murdering a local shepherd, tensions erupt into bloodshed. Meanwhile, a Macedonian photographer (Rade Serbedzija), haunted by the atrocities he witnessed while on assignment in Bosnia, decides to leave London and his pregnant girlfriend (the late Katrin Cartlidge) to return to his homeland.
Much like its contemporary Pulp Fiction, Before the Rain's story spreads out in non-linear time, but doesn't use the technique for cheap shock value. As the separate stories collide, Manchevski’s exploration of the circular nature of violence becomes increasingly apparent; no one is safe from this spherical swath of bloodshed. Sudden bursts of shocking carnage erupt in locales as diverse as a pastoral monastery and a swank London restaurant, but like the great director Sam Peckinpah, Manchevski’s use of violence is anything short of gratuitous. In a nod to the famous scorpion-burning scene that begins Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Before the Rain opens on a group of children setting a turtle on fire. Violence begins at a young age in Manchevski’s Macdonia.
But the director makes it perfectly clear that his Macedonia is not necessarily true-to-life; objective reality is not paramount in a parable. In Before the Rain, people live as if it’s the 18th century, growing their own food and living in mud huts. According to film critic Ian Christie, Manchevski manipulated his Balkan homeland to “create a composite” for “a timeless pastoral landscape.” An enormous moon hangs over the impossibly rugged hills surrounding the village and monastery. By including shots of London and Skopje, Manchevski roots the story in a very modern world and never allows his stage to be a lawless place where bands of men with machine guns roam the countryside.
At the heart of the story is Serbedzija’s photographer, Aleksandar. Portrayed as brooding and mysterious, Aleksandar wants to leave his cosmopolitan life in London for the familiarity of his homeland. When he arrives back in Macedonia, he finds his relatives to be machine gun-toting thugs who take pleasure in getting drunk and sparring with their neighbors. After being away for two decades, Aleksandar finds himself without a homeland, confused and dismayed by the scourge of violence he sees spreading throughout Europe. Serbedzija’s performance is not the only one that buoys the film. Cartlidge, a veteran of Mike Leigh films, is quietly effective as Anne, a woman torn between two lovers (both of which she ultimately loses). Most heartbreaking are Colin, the monk who sacrifices his place in the monastery after a botched attempt to save a life, and Mitevska, the tragic Albanian girl who the villagers scapegoat as a reason to begin shooting.
Each of the film’s three stories mirror one another, featuring characters who cannot or will not understand each other (a concept taken to greater heights years later by Alejandro González Iñárritu in Babel). The distant sounds of the Beastie Boys resonates throughout each part as the threat of rain looms. Tragically, all the stories end with the death of a major character. The most curious thing about Manchevski’s vision is that the deaths in the first and third parts are not caused by an enemy, but by the hands of a family member. Even among families the values of compassion and humanity are missing.
At the film’s beginning and end, one of Kiril’s older brethren notes that rain is approaching. But for what reason does Manchevski invoke this impending downpour? Rain is principally used as two motifs: to signal the arrival of some dark and deadly force or to wash the land clean of its blood and sin, to start again. As a principal character grasps at a desiccated flower with dying fingers, the rain does begin. But is it washing away his wounds, or is it just a portend that only more death will stem from so much killing?