It’s a recognizably portentous way to begin a war film: a field of farmers bent over stalks of tomato plants, picking their crop under a blazing sun. Viewers like myself, accustomed to Deer Hunters and Apocalypse Nows, will be primed for these peasants to be mowed down momentarily in a hail of machine gunfire. So often either the aggressors or bystanders of most global conflicts, American depictions of battle typically take the soldier’s eye view, getting down in the muck with all its stray bullets and airborne body parts. But in Before the Rain, director Milcho Manchevski withholds many of these maximalist markers of cinematic language to tell a more intimate story of brutality and loss. The violence that ripped through his home country Macedonia (now North Macedonia)—and neighboring Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina—in the early 90’s was not that long ago, but the images now coming to the U.S. from Ukraine have an eerie echo with them. There are some key differences between those earlier clashes and the current Russian invasion, and they shouldn’t be conflated in historical terms. But revisiting the cinema of these nations in this time can still be informative on the human scale, and Before the Rain remains one of the most potent examples.
Oddly, the American film that Before the Rain shares the most D.N.A. with isn’t a war movie at all, but Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which also came out in 1994. While Tarantino deployed a fractured narrative mostly as a stylistic device to surprise and excite the viewer, Manchevski is using it to demonstrate what large-scale violence can do to a psyche. Told in three discrete but interlocking chapters, its Mobius-strip structure circles back on itself, characters and situations reflecting one another in ways that only become clear at the conclusion with some mysteries deliberately left unsolved. As a priest in part one says and graffiti in part two quotes: “Time never dies. The circle is not round.”
It can be a frustrating experience at first, especially as the initial chapter “Words” is the least immediately compelling, relying on connections that will be revealed later on. It centers on a young priest in training (Grégoire Colin) who has taken a vow of silence. His late night discovery of an Albanian girl hiding in his room and decision to conceal her from the local thugs hunting her for a murder she may or may not have committed will lead inevitably to tragedy. Banished from his monastery, the two flee into the countryside where they are met by the girl’s relatives. In an ironic twist, they will be the ones to shoot her as she runs for her savior. Manchevski carefully lays the groundwork here for a world about to be riven by violence. Everything in the landscape is imbued with threatening potential, from the children playing with and then killing a turtle, to the crackling sound of a radio incongruously playing Beastie Boys’ “Whatcha Want.” Early on one of the priests mentions that it is already raining in the mountains across the sea. This is a place where even the weather is divided.
At one point in this first section we are shown a brief glimpse of a funeral. We do not know who the dead is, but we do see an Englishwoman hovering nearby. Her presence is unexplained but she is clearly distraught. “Faces,” the second chapter, will introduce us to her in full. She is a British photo editor (played by a quietly devastating Katrin Cartlidge), unhappily pregnant and enmeshed in an affair with a Macedonian photographer named Alex (Rade Šerbedžija) who recently returned from assignment in Bosnia and is clearly shattered by what he saw there. “Peace is an exception,” he tells her flippantly when she implores him to take sides against war. There’s a certain privilege to her outsider position, and watching her grapple with it is deeply, if necessarily, uncomfortable as a Western viewer. But sectarian violence has no borders, as Manchevski makes clear in the chapter’s closing scene. Declining to join Alex as he leaves for Macedonia, Anne meets her husband for dinner. Employing a quick-cutting style that heightens the tension of a seemingly mundane moment, an argument breaks out between a waiter and a guest. Both are Eastern European immigrants, though Manchevski leaves their dialogue untranslated. Whatever the nature of their dispute, the result is as senseless as the violence that ends part one. The guest returns with a gun and begins shooting indiscriminately into the restaurant, Anne’s husband becoming one of the victims.
“Pictures,” the third and final chapter, follows Alex as he returns to his home country for the first time in sixteen years. He tells a soldier on the bus that he’s there to attend his nephew’s baptism, at which point savvy viewers might clock to where this section is heading. Though his childhood home is partly bombed out and the Albanian Muslim minority has been ghettoised in a distinct area of the town, Alex seems confident that the ethnic clashes won’t reach them, blinded by his affection for a world that no longer exists but he also no longer quite fits in. Pressed into a nationalist allegiance he wants no part of, his fate will end up mirroring that of the young girl in the film’s first section. At its end, she is still living and Alex’s release of her from his relatives’ clutches will loop back to the opening, a trenchant condemnation of humanity’s continual capacity for violence. The rain promised in the title starts to fall, but the blood it washes away is only beginning to be shed.
No war, of course, is worth the art that’s borne from it. But art is an essential tool for processing national trauma, and speaking truth to power. It’s why poets, intellectuals, and journalists are some of the most prominent targets of totalitarian regimes. Already writers from Ukraine are seeing their work reaching the wider world via social media, which is a great thing. It will likely be years before audiences are able to engage with the conflict cinematically, but in the meantime the lesson of films like Before the Rain should not be forgotten: we are here again because it’s where we’ve always been.
Before the Rain is available to subscribers on The Criterion Channel, or to rent or purchase from other online streamers.
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Before the Rain
Released February 24th, 1995
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.