Note: The following review and analysis contains some spoilers.
Before the Rain is Macedonian native writer/director Milcho Manchevski's slightly surrealistic three part tale of the vicious cycle of violence in the Balkans. "The circle is not round," says a bearded Eastern Orthodox priest to his much younger protege, Kiril, who has taken a vow of silence. The phrase reappears throughout the film, and encapsulates the paradoxical timeline that loops through the film.
The beauty of the landscape around their tiny monastery is soon sullied by a small hunting party made up of local villagers with automatic weapons, looking to avenge the death of one of their own, a shepherd, at the hands of a teenaged Albanian Moslem girl named Zamira. Zamira has hidden herself in Kiril's room, and he ultimately decides to help her evade the villagers. Kiril's fellow monks eventually discover what he is up to and are forced to kick him out of the monastery, albeit under the cover of darkness so he can continue to help Zamira evade the gun-toting vigilantes.
Sadly, even as Kiril makes plans for Zamira and himself to run away to London, they are discovered by Zamira's relatives, who are angry with her for setting off the Christians who are chasing her around. Harsh words are exchanged, and eventually Zamira is accidentally shot by her own brother.
Cut to London, where we meet Anne, Euro-chic photo editor torn between her husband Nick, and globetrotting Macedonian photographer Aleksander. Anne learns she is pregnant with Nick's child and Aleksander asks her to come to Macedonia with him. She refuses.
Later, Anne meets with Nick at a nice restaurant to tell him that she is pregnant, and ask him for a divorce. As if this weren't enough, a nameless foreign man who was thrown out of the restaurant for fighting with a waiter bursts back in the door and opens fire for seemingly no reason. Blood flies, Nick is killed, and Anne's dress is soiled in the blood of strangers.
Finally we catch up with Aleksander who is returning to Macedonia to reclaim his roots. He gets off the bus near his old village and is greeted by a bumbling teenager with an automatic weapon. Aleksander spends the night in his old bed, and reunites with all his relatives the next morning. He finds that he still does not fully grasp the tensions that now grip his old home. Soon enough, his cousin, the shepherd from the first part of the film, is killed by Zamira, and Aleksander himself is shot in the back by his own relatives as he attempts to protect her.
Before the Rain is a violent tale. In each of the film's three chapters something is shot up in a messy slow motion sequence. Manchevski forces the audience to choose between watching things get blown to a bloody pulp, or turning away in disgust. Interestingly, the sequence which I personally found hardest to watch was the scene in the first chapter where a crazy villager opens fire on a monastery cat.
The longest violent scene in the movie is at the London restaurant with Anne, Nick, and the nameless gunman. The gunman unloads well over 30 rounds from his pistol without pausing to reload, and the patrons of the restaurant are as deer caught in headlights, most failing to react until they are blown away by the yelling assailant. One schoolgirl who was celebrating her birthday simply stands up and covers her head with her arms as the bullets, blood, tables and shards of glass fly around her. When the maelstrom of death ends, she is still standing, confused and probably emotionally scarred for life. The maitre d' manages to whimper something about how the police have been called, an act which feels as absolutely futile as Manchevski intended it.
Manchevski's depiction of violence places it outside rational thought. People die for the wrong reasons, at the hands of the wrong people, and with the kind of overkill that only comes from automatic weapons. Both Aleksander and Zamira are shot by their own relatives, who are trying to kill other people. The restaurant gunman just randomly lets fire on anyone and everyone. Raging passions and a seemingly blind belief in "how things are supposed to work" defy the traditionally logical Western mind. Violence is quick and agile, leaving rational thought only to pick up the pieces and wonder why after it has already moved on.
At its heart, Before the Rain is about the relationship between disparate worlds. Downtown London and rural Macedonia, photographic image and reality, Christian and Moslem, monastic and secular lifestyle are forced to confront each other and one must dominate the other. In Manchevski's vision, the more violent view always wins out, but perhaps only because it will not allow the non-violent view the time to negotiate.
The hotheaded automatic-weapon-bearing villagers who confront the priests, for example, try to follow the protocol of the religion, which is, after all, the religion of the group of villagers, and is supposedly a major source for all the revenge-violence in the Balkans. Unfortunately, the mostly levelheaded leader cannot control the blood fervor and trigger happiness of the other members in his party. The hunting party tears up the private quarters of the various priests with little regard to the value, religious or otherwise, of anything they might accidentally be breaking, sullying, and so on.
The one moment where two opposing worlds fully unite actually occurs off camera, presumably at a time before the movie begins. Aleksander reminisces in a letter to Anne about the event that prompted him to come back to his childhood home. When he worked as a photographer on the front lines, he mentioned to a guard of a prison line that he wasn't really getting any interesting shots. The guard pulled a prisoner out of the line and told Aleksander to ready his camera. The guard then executed the prisoner while Aleksander took pictures. The ultimate passive observer, a camera, became the executioner. The shooting of film and the shooting of bullets became one.
And so, like a bullet, comes the message of this film, which is that the reality of fighting in the Balkans cannot be understood in purely rational terms. It is violence not exactly for its own sake, but for the sake of other, different violence. It's not exactly about choosing sides, as Aleksander discovers when his family shoots him in the back. It's not exactly about age-old feuds, as Anne discovers when a stranger takes out a restaurant full of diners. If Manchevski's Before the Rain is about anything at all, it's about the violence, in all its bloody, senseless glory.