This tough-minded triptych of fractured narratives seems somewhat dated in its use of interconnected stories, forged into a heavy-handed allegory of the circular nature of violence in the Balkans. But what it loses in novelty and subtlety it makes up for in its earnest depiction of love and individual human decency in the face of societal cruelty. The first story thread involves a young Christian monk (Grégoire Colin) whose vow of silence allows the tale to be told almost entirely through its striking visuals, with mountain locales and ornamentally detailed orthodox churches as an appropriately epic backdrop. The monk provides shelter for an Albanian Muslim refugee (Labina Mitevska), keeping her presence secret from his Macedonian elders and placing himself in danger from the roving band of ethnic cleansing gunmen. Though filmmaker Milcho Manchavski’s camera isn’t as energetic as Martin Scorsese’s, mostly lingering on slow-burn situations beneath gorgeously rich blood-red sunsets or azure blue moonlight, he conjures up a similar sense of macho, testosterone-driven restlessness. The very title, Before the Rain, signals the idea of an approaching storm, but when it comes down, it will be like a hail of stones.
When Before the Rain detours into the second plot, set in cosmopolitan London, there’s a radical focus shift, moving away from tribal frustrations and into a relationship crisis for a career woman, Anne (Katrin Cartlidge). Manchavski’s feral masculine energy is entirely poured into the character of her would-be lover Alexsandar (Rade Serbedzija), a wild man of a photojournalist with wild long locks of gray hair and a tangled beard. In self-imposed exile from his homeland Macedonia, he’s conflicted about returning to his roots in the name of a righteous cause. He hovers around Anne as if he were a voracious animal, nuzzling her and cooing ironic words of love in an attempt to join him on his adventure, steering her away from her banal yuppie lifestyle. Whenever Anne and Alexsandar are considering each other, whether it’s on screen together in a near-sexual encounter in the back of a taxicab, or standing alone waiting for the other person by the telephone, the sexual chemistry is so palpable you can practically inhale the sweat of their crazy love-worship.
As actors who can represent strong real-world characters who know who they are politically, sexually and experientially, Cartlidge and Serbedzija are two of the great performers of our time. Their world-weary eyes and laconic attitudes match perfectly, so even if the situation Manchavski poses for them is hackneyed in its soap-operatic theatrics (he wants her to leave her husband behind, she won’t dare tell him she’s pregnant—perhaps with his baby), and the way they abandon each other seems abrupt even given the hopelessness of their situation, their few minutes together in Before the Rain appropriately form the centerpiece of the film. Too bad Anne’s story wraps itself up in such a ridiculous message-heavy way, set in a posh restaurant where, as she attempts to reconcile matters with her husband, in the background an unsettling racial argument leads to a spontaneous burst of racial violence. It simplifies fragile Anne to a symbol of a glass house—a pithy reduction of the complexity and haunting elegance that Cartlidge brings to her.
But Serbedzija is allowed to carry the final, and longest, tale. When Aleksandar returns home, he is immediately accosted at gunpoint by a callow youth, and just as quickly turns the tables on his oppressor. Immediately presented as a kind of worn-out gunslinger coming home to roost, the outcome of his story is never in doubt; outside his residence he’s seen riding around on a bicycle and whistling “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” in homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What’s more pleasing is Serbedzija’s attitude in scenes where he attempts to reconnect with a distant ex-girlfriend who, in the years that passed them by, found herself on the other side of the ethnic divide. The scene itself is blatant and ham-fisted, but once again the presence of the actor elevates the material when he lingers over a glass of water and some table food presented to him as a guest of the house. He handles the moment with a light touch of irony, mixed with haunted gratitude and smiling melancholy. Whether drinking homemade whiskey deep into the night or embracing comrades in feet-off-the-ground bear hugs, Serbedzija is the perfect hero for Manchavski, a sardonically comical man’s man.
“Time Never Dies” is the circular theme that weaves together all three plots, and for all the poetic echoes of images and sounds (characters in different places and even time zones reacting to the same music, same claps of thunder, and so on), the interconnectedness feels somehow too academic and detached. It creates a strange sensation watching the film, leaving the exhausted viewer with disengaged pity at the random hostilities. Nevertheless, the shattering of the former Yugoslavia creates a grandly bleak frontier for these gun-toting, blood-soaked morality plays—that’s more than we can hope for most American action films, which seem to welcome roaring applause in the name of mass murder.
Once again, Criterion comes through with a gorgeous transfer with vibrant colors and pristine image quality. The audio levels are well balanced and clear.
Milcho Manchavski expresses his thoughts about the massacres of Bosnia and Croatia in his full-length audio commentary, accompanied by Annette Insdorf's reading of signs and signifiers within his film. His straightforward, unpretentious take on the material makes a good foil to Insdorf's theories and references (her comparison to Krzysztof Kieślowski is right on the money). There's more from Manchavski and his crew in a 1993 documentary and other behind-the-scenes footage, which shows their struggles to make an independent film in Central Europe as well as struggles within the international crew-mostly between the philosophical differences of the British and the Croatians when it comes to daily life and labor. The brief accompanying print essay by Ian Christie is succinct and informative, and makes a case for linking Before the Rain to other international titles of the mid-1990s such as Ken Loach's Land and Freedom and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. As a figure common to both Manchavski and von Trier's breakthrough films, Christie's astute mention of the late Katrin Cartlidge's contribution to international cinema reminds us of the "conviction [she brought to] all her roles in a tragically short career."
Manchavski's music video "Tennessee" and his photography collection "Street" are glossy depictions of street-life culture, which pigeonhole him as a sleek stylist drawn to broad social statement. It makes me wonder why Hollywood didn't embrace him, since he's clearly no art-house iconoclast. Certainly, his lead actor Rade Serbedzija has made a pretty good living appearing routinely as bad guys in junk-food pop entertainment like Mission: Impossible II and Snatch, but watching a brief interview with the actor is a reminder of what a solid screen presence he is, and how his own exile from Croatia as a stage and screen actor informs his role in Before the Rain. One wishes he was able to bridge the gap between paying the rent with big blockbusters and still carving out a career in more committed independent films like, say, Stellan Skarsgaard.
If it's only as politically savvy as a college term paper, it's also as gritty as an old-school western.