Today, Mr. Manchevski is hopeful about the future of his homeland. He rejects the idea that Balkan nations are doomed to repeat a century-long cycle of violence…
Manchevski said. “It’s not so that if something happened 300 years ago, it has to happen again. For me, the only thing that matters is your own personal responsibility–whether you’re in Northern Ireland or Armenia or London or Macedonia.”
“A Journey to Macedonia Takes a Director to Sundance,” by Ellen Pall (The New York Times, Sunday, January 22, 1995)
One urgently wants to embrace Milcho Manchevski’s forecast for the eventual maturation of his Balkan homeland, but that day appears more distant in light of the recent assassination attempt on the life of FYROM President Gligorov (see our NEWS section for details).
The West has persistently branded Macedonia as the “Balkan powder keg,” and, in truth, Macedonia has often lived up to the name. (The first modern terrorist organization was the bomb-throwing Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, founded in Skopje in 1894.) In our own day and until quite recently, the Republic of Macedonia had remained relatively untouched by bloodshed and violence, considering the volatile mixture of Macedonia’s various ethnic and religious groups and the civil war right next door in Bosnia. Milcho Manchevski’s electrifying 1994 Academy Award-nominated film, “Before the Rain,” is a timely reminder of Macedonia’s sad and bloody history and its potential suddenly to erupt anew.
“Before the Rain” comprises three separate, yet deftly bridged segments, in which the director weaves together the story of the film’s protagonist. This bloodstained triptych is a singular device which heightens the film’s at times mystical tone, especially in the first and last segments. For Manchevski, it is a story of how one man’s unbridled hatred toward his neighbor can set in motion an ever-turning wheel of carnage. Not a novel premise, but one powerfully interpreted and artistically executed here.
“Words” opens in present day Macedonia in as peaceful and rustic a setting as one can imagine, a remote Eastern Orthodox Monastery. In a brief time, Kiril (Gregoire Kolin), a naive young monk under a vow of silence, has his religious obedience, ethnic allegiance and celibacy tested when Zamira (Labina Metevska), a wilful Albanian Moslem girl takes refuge from her Slavic pursuers in his cell one night.
“Faces” moves the story to London, where Macedonian Aleksandar Kirkov (Rade Serbedzija), an earthy, international photojournalist and Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), a somewhat melancholy English editor at the magazine for which Aleksandar works, are at a critical stage of their passionate love affair. Aleksandar, war-weary and fed up with press sensationalism as well as his nomadic life, decides to return to his village in his newly independent homeland and live there permanently. Anne, unresolved, and possessing a secret, arranges to meet her husband at a restaurant where she will confront the state of their marriage as well as her own feelings of confusion in one of this film’s most unnerving scenes.
At first reflection, “Faces” strikes one as the odd-man-out of the three segments. After a second viewing, however, one perceives how it was designed to lull the audience back into a modern, seemingly secure and more easily identifiable setting. In a moment both serene and foreboding, Manchevski none too surreptitiously sermonizes, releasing the spiritual currents that run throughout “Before the Rain.” Anne strolls past the open doors of a cavernous London church where a choir is rehearsing. Something draws her, and the camera stares down the long aisle to the engraving stretched high above the altar: “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” “Faces” also succeeds because it juxtaposes Aleksandar’s destiny in Macedonia with his more carefree life with Anne in London.
Manchevski shows his genius for manipulating and shocking an audience in the restaurant scene, which is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tension-building methodology. Here, the unraveling emotions of Anne and her husband are masterfully orchestrated to merge with the chaos that soon engulfs them. It is an omen of things to come, but it is also a potent reminder to the cultivated West that the specter of senseless ethnic violence exists not only in Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of war scenes from the Balkans, but can resurface suddenly and furiously in even the most “civilized” of places.
“Pictures,” the third segment, brings Aleksandar back to his village in Macedonia only to find ethnic tensions running high between the Slavic Orthodox inhabitants and the neighboring Albanian village, to which he ventures in order to seek out the Albanian woman he once loved. As events arising from the first segment sweep forward to their awful conclusion, “Words” inevitably pulls Aleksandar into the climactic heart of this story and sees him take a bold, decisive stand. It is his transfixed, Christ-like expression in the next-to-last scene that will haunt you at the conclusion of this tragic Balkan tale.
Serbedzije is luminous as the rugged, irrepressible, devil-may-care Aleksandar. Abdurahman Shala, as Zekir, the stern Albanian father of Aleksandar’s old girlfriend, manifests brilliantly the negativism, wiliness and strengths associated with a traditional Balkan patriarch. Manchevski’s pensive, artful direction, and the arresting cinematography of the lunar-like landscapes, medieval Byzantine monasteries, and red-earth villages of Macedonia sustain and project a mythical quality — apropos, since the Balkans is a region known for defending its mythologies. The musical score, which includes such authentic folk instruments as the bagpipes and shepherd’s flute, complements these unearthly vistas and expresses the pride, joy and anguish of this ancient, troubled land.
“Before the Rain” is intense and at times brutal. It includes sex, strong language, and explicit violence. The dialogue is in English, Macedonian (a Slavic language), and Albanian (the last two have English subtitles). It should be available in video stores as you read this review.