Upon its debut in 1994, Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain was almost immediately and rightfully regarded as a landmark cinematic achievement. Completed just two years after the Balkan nation declared its independence from Yugoslavia amid some of the bloodiest civil wars in European history and just one year after the United Nations recognized Macedonia as an independent republic, the film was instantly noteworthy as the first major work of a new nation.
A powerful triptych about love, war, family and religion, Before the Rain was nominated for an Academy Award and picked up countless other awards on the festival circuit, including a runner-up spot for the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It returns to the city this week amid the line-up for this year’s 10th annual Macedonian Film Festival as the kick off to a retrospective of Manchevski’s work.
Divided into three interconnected, elliptical, but separate stories—titled “Words”, “Faces” and “Pictures”—it’s a sprawling tale of loves lost and futile cycles of generational violence worthy of Tolstoy and Hemingway in equal amount. In the first segment, a monk sworn to silence (Grégoire Colin) tries his best to protect an Albanian Muslim girl after she’s suspected of murder. It’s a story that gets immediately to the heart of conflicts between the country’s large Christian Orthodoxy and the Muslims that had largely been the ruling class prior to the still-simmering civil war.
In the second section, which shifts gears to London, we’re introduced to what’s ostensibly the film’s main protagonist, Aleksandar, played by character actor Rade Serbedzija. He’s not a perfect man, but this section isn’t entirely his story. A Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and Macedonian native, Aleksandar returns briefly to London overcome by guilt over what he has witnessed on his last trip. It’s enough for him to beg his estranged wife and picture editor, Anne (the late Katrin Cartlidge), to leave London and follow him back to his homeland. Needing some time to think, Aleksandar leaves things on terrible terms with Anne and departs. At this point, the shock waves from the Macedonian conflict make their way to the U.K. for some pointed commentary from Manchevski about the true definition of violent and emotional terrorism.
The film ends with its longest section as Alexsandar tries piecing together a new life for himself in the old country after sixteen years away. He’s tired, frustrated, sad and looking to reconnect with an Albanian girl that his immediate family essentially forbids him from seeing.
Before the Rain was very much a product of its time, and made by someone who has clearly thought critically and existentially about the crisis in his homeland. Manchevski wasn’t exactly ensconced in Macedonia throughout its most troublesome period, though. He was actually attending university in the United States and was gaining considerable acclaim as a music video director, most notably for Arrested Development’s groundbreaking video for “Tennessee.” Although it’s a vital piece of national cinema to come from a then relatively infant nation, Manchevski’s technical prowess and utilization of North American filmmaking techniques never betrays his artful, slow burning storytelling. (He also shows a distinct love for American pop culture, with the Beastie Boys track “So What’cha Want” adding a cheeky, but key, running motif throughout the film.)
Before the Rain certainly isn’t an optimistic film, but it also isn’t a cynical one. There are moments of great truth, beauty and catharsis to be found for these characters, despite those feelings often coming punctuated by bursts of graphic, often avoidable violence. It’s an elegiac statement about the new world and the old world clashing, and the constant intangibles of love, war and religion. It’s one of the best works of world cinema from the 1990s.