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Surreal images and situations carry Before the Rain

Anne (Katrin Cartlidge) and Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija) are loves in Before the Rain.

Before the Rain

Written and directed by Milcho Manchevski.

Starring Katrin Cartlidge, Rade Serbedzija, Gregoire Colin, and Labina Mitevska.

Sony Nickelodeon.

By Teresa Esser
Staff Reporter

Even as winner of the coveted Golden Lion Award at this year's Venice International Film Festival and as nominee for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, Before the Rain is a confusing movie. You can't tell which way is up, or who the characters are, or why they act the way they do.

The movie opens by flashing from scene to scene: the interior of a Russian Orthodox cathedral, children playing in the grass outside, and, on another hill not far away, a group of peasants lowering a coffin into the ground. Although the scenes share the same somber tone, it is almost impossible to discern how the different scenes are related. The monks are saying mass, but they are not performing funeral services. The peasants are performing a funeral on their own, crying and weeping without any obvious religious influences. Finally, a group of children outside the cathedral are performing a sort of pagan ceremony involving a ring of burning twigs and a pair of hapless turtles.

The story begins when the handsome monk Kiril (Gregoire Colin) returns to his cell and discovers a warm body lying in his bed. The close-cropped fugitive turns out to be an Albanian runaway named Zamira (Labina Mitevska) who has killed the hillside funeral's guest of honor. Because the room is dark and Kiril has taken a vow of silence for two years, communication between the two is minimal. Kiril smuggles in a handful of red fruits and the girl satiates her obvious hunger, but beyond that nothing happens. And Manchevski calls his film a love story.

For reasons unknown to the audience, Kiril risks body and soul to hide Zamira from her Albanian pursuers. Although the peasants tear up the monastery (spearing rolls of toilet paper with the ends of their machine guns) they forget to search Kiril's cell, and Zamira is safe.

Sexual tension in the movie builds up to a dramatic climax that evening in Kiril's room, when he opens his eyes, sits up in bed and extends a hand to his cowering guest. The moonlight shines through the tiny window to reveal passion in Kiril's eyes, which seem to say, "Please come to bed with me." Zamira shakes her head. The repressive forces of the monastery are strong enough to make her prefer freezing on the stone floor to sharing a bed with Kiril.

From that moment on the film moves sideways or backwards; it's never made clear. The intense blue skies, white stones, and the reddish grasses of the Macedonian mountains combine to transport viewers of Before the Rain into a simpler and more beautiful world. However, Manchevski doesn't allow audiences much time to adapt to the serenity of rural life before filling the screen with gunfire. The events leading up to the climactic monastery moment are explained, although the chronology is bungled. Kiril the novice monk is never seen again; instead, the attention switches to his photographer uncle (Rade Serbedzija) and a London-based editor (Katrin Cartlidge) who exists solely so that Manchevski can make a point about violence.

The movie's billing as "A Love Story told in Three Parts" is a transparent attempt to hide its obvious political agenda. Mancevski's goal is to make a point about how pervasive and ubiquitous violence is. Before the Rain deals superficially with the seasons of life and love, but a great deal more time was spent conveying the horror of war. If the theme of the movie were to be summed up in one line, it would be that no one is safe. Not monks in their monastery, not peasants in their isolated villages, not even innocent bystanders in London restaurants whose interest in the Macedonian-Albanian ethnic conflict is purely voyeuristic.

The film is unsatisfying for a variety of reasons: first, because we never find out what becomes of Kiril, and second, because it's hard to make sense of the movie itself. Even after adjusting to the swiftly fleeting subtitles, it's frustrating to realize that the characters themselves cannot understand each other. Kiril and the monks speak Macedonian, but Zamira speaks only Albanian. Kiril's vow of silence only makes things worse. And yet that may have been exactly what Manchevski wanted to show: dissatisfaction - emptiness. The frustration of not getting what one wants, of not hearing the end of a story, and of only knowing tentatively that some of the characters are dead.

It's difficult to follow the actual plot because the story is told backwards. Or sideways. Or maybe the events go around in a circle: "Time goes on," an elder says again at the end of the movie, "but the circle is not always round." After nearly two hours of watching random events (children playing, faces blown off in restaurants, the birth of two baby lambs and the slaughter of a cat on a hot tin roof) the elder's wisdom is only slightly more comprehensible. War is chaos; people die and you never know exactly where you stand.

Time, too seems to be flexible; in a place as technologically backward as the mountains of Macedonia it's hard to know what happened when, or to whom, or whether the persons who saw it are still alive to talk about it.

In all, Before the Rain provides an excellent diversion for anyone who is frustrated with the demands of high technology. Not only will it make you appreciate the relative peace and tranquility of life in the United States, it may even satisfy your wanderlust.