Before the Rain | Milcho Manchevski | Macedonia | 1994 | 113 minutes
Jason Fuhrman’s program notes for the next Cinesthesia screening on Thursday night provides context for Milcho Manchevski’s impressive but often overlooked feature debut, Before the Rain.
If one hopes for a work of art to have a social function (and it is not meant to have a direct social function by any stretch of the imagination), then one should certainly hope that exposing violence in its despicable and repulsive brutality – if not absurdity – is one of the socially beneficial side-effects of art. Thus, society is better served by a gross “portrayal” of violence than by sanitized studio fare.
—Milcho Manchevski, 2007
Director, photographer, conceptual artist and writer Milcho Manchevski is considered one of the most original and innovative filmmakers of our time for his unique blend of formal experimentation, cinematic poetry, and a demand for the active participation of the viewer in the construction of meaning. Eschewing the conventional tropes of predictability that continue to dominate contemporary filmmaking, Manchevski embraces a radical approach to engaging his audience.
Manchevski’s work plays with space, time, emotion, and the elasticity of narrative structure, while never completely forgoing the importance of storytelling. The power of his films, according to the Irish artist and art critic Conor McGrady, truly lies “in their ability to challenge the viewer, and open a discourse not only on film, but our relationship to the complex construction of the social and historical fabric in which we reside.”
Born in Yugoslavia and educated at Southern Illinois University, Manchevski spent a decade in the U.S. making short films and award-winning music videos before he began work on his debut feature. He took the film world by storm with Before the Rain, a powerful, labyrinthine, and elegiac portrait of love and violence in Macedonia and London.
Situated against a background of simmering ethnic and religious hatred about to reach its boiling point, the film interweaves the stories of a silent young monk, a British picture editor, and a disillusioned war photographer. A timeless and universal work of tough beauty that transcends both national and artistic boundaries of cinema, Before the Rain is a searing yet lyrical reflection on the cyclical nature of war, as well as a provocative examination of personal truth.
Manchevski’s film emerged during a major cultural and political crisis: the disintegration of federal Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The embryo of the idea for it came to him in 1991 when he returned to his hometown of Skopje. The writer and director described his impression as a “before the rain feeling,” as “a sense of impending doom,” but also perhaps “something cleansing.” Manchevski went back to New York and wrote a three-part six-page story, which he kept private, assuming that it would be “too esoteric” for the big screen. Nevertheless, in 1992 French and English producers decided to develop the script and the film was shot on location in Macedonia and London in 1993. Meanwhile, the Yugoslav State fell apart and its former republic of Macedonia was declared an independent and sovereign state.
But the film is far from a documentary treatment of Balkan violence, and Manchevski’s native country was in fact the only Balkan state at that time not to have been plagued by war or ethnic conflict. As he explained, “The story was inspired by the events unfolding in Yugoslavia, but it was not about them. It was about people in any country who stand in front of large events that are about to engulf them.”
Although Before the Rain was a very topical story, it is not a piece of realism. Rather, it is a piece of poetry. In order to reinforce the fact that the film is neither reportage nor political analysis, Manchevski approached it stylistically as a fable. He made Macedonia look like a fairy-tale land in the way it was photographed, while patching up roads to inaccessible places and bringing together very different spaces to create a composite. What resulted is the image of an apparently timeless pastoral landscape that is closer to a mythical place than to contemporary Macedonia. In an interview Manchevski said: “What is important is that I do not mean my film to be taken as a documentary of actual events.”
The artistic director of Slovene Cinematheque, Silvan Furlan, who screened Before the Rain in Slovenia when it was released in 1994, recognized the difference between this film and realist films about the Balkan conflict. With Slovenia awash in television documentaries and journalistic reports—“we are full of those pictures”—Furlan saw something else in Manchevski’s work. Before the Rain “opens a new imaginative register,” he stated, “even for the public of ex-Yugoslavia, which lives this reality every day.”
On the other hand, Manchevski insisted on realistic detail, ensuring that the costumes, dialect, and architecture corresponded to a lifelike picture. While the events portrayed in the film are fictitious, it was necessary for them to take place among specific people living in specific places. Before the Rain immerses the audience in a compelling emotional drama even as it systematically interrogates the perspective of the audience. With its complex narrative structure and layering of fiction and reality, the film is left open to many different interpretations, which deepen upon reflection and repeated viewing.
Shortly before the opening of Before the Rain, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had become a box office success. Both films have a circular structure, and the reviews written around the mid-90s often compared Before the Rain with Pulp Fiction. Manchevski was not influenced by Tarantino; they were making their films simultaneously. However, the narrative framework of Before the Rain is more intricate than that of Pulp Fiction, and it has a deeper purpose. Manchevski’s film presents juxtapositions of images that jolt viewers into contemplating the limits of their initial impressions. It also challenges the conventional Western assumption that photography records rather than manufactures an image.
The words of critic Andrea Morini eloquently describe the feeling Before the Rain inspires in the viewer:
I can still remember exactly how I felt at the end of that film: It was a mixture of intense joy and bitterness, the thought of what I had seen pained me, and—yet—at the same time, I was exhilarated by the way in which the story had been presented. This film was not a simplistic reproduction of reality, it was much more. It had distilled, interpreted and given its audience reality in the form of a refined language with a series of metaphors producing infinite variations of meaning.
Among the greatest debut features in the history of cinema and the first film made in the newly independent Republic of Macedonia, Before the Rain conveyed an alternative vision of the Balkans to a large audience. It also propelled both Macedonia and Manchevski to the international stage while giving a human face to his young country. Manchevski’s brilliant work won an Academy Award nomination and thirty awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Film in Venice. The New York Times included it on its list of the “Best 1,000 Films Ever Made.” Roger Ebert commented, “Work like this is what keeps me going, month after month and film after film: . . . this is a reminder of the nobility that film can attain.”