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MOVIE REVIEW Before the Rain

Macedonian, Albanian (subtitles), English
Director: Milcho Manchevski

Rating ****

Through a microcosm of the world, this 1994 film shows us a microcosm of war. We witness how the Bosnian war, seen through the eyes of disillusioned, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Aleksandr Kirkov (Rade Serbedzija), turns his mountain village into an armed camp, pitting neighbor against neighbor; father against daughter.

Using rich symbolism, lush imagery and a thoughtful pace, the movie gives us a taste of how ethnic war and hatred can turn individuals, families and communities into vessels of destruction. A young monk is tossed out of a monastery for protecting an innocent fugitive, and is forced to break his vow of silence. Gun-toting Christian and Muslim villagers shoot anyone often in the back who won't bow to their will. Children torture turtles by throwing bullets into a flame.

These and other terrible things happen against a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop, aptly noted by the parish priest in his opening words to the young monk: "I nearly took a vow of silence, like you. But this heavenly beauty merits words." And the film speaks loudly through pictures worth thousands of words by interspersing beauty and terror like slices of a rich layer cake.

Filmed in Macedonia, with a side trip into London, England, Before the Rain is a cinematic dream. The movie opens and closes on a cliff overlooking one of the country's three lakes, giving us a sweeping, bird's-eye view of an ancient Orthodox Christian cathedral and monastery perched on the rocks. Tidy vegetable gardens, tended by the fragile young monk, cling tenaciously to the side of the mountain. Inside the monastery, we're struck by the contrasts between the monks' austere clothing and quarters and the Byzantine decadence of the church. Its walls and ceilings are painted with gold leaf and icons of richly clad holy folk. The priests are weighed down with heavy brocade vestments. Gregorian chanting and incense fill the holy space. Outside, children play with machine guns, fire and bullets. Villagers walk with a heavily clad bride on her wedding day. Or they walk with the dead to the local cemetery. Eventually, torrential rain washes away the blood and the tears, clearing the earth for the "circle of life" to begin again.

I found the film's approach enthralling, but had to see it twice to catch all the subtleties. It tells a cyclical story in three chapters, which overlap. The musical score, by Anastasia, is a marvelous mix of Middle-Eastern sounds. Much of the cinematography is snapshot-style, as if taken through Aleksandr's camera. And the depiction of the Orthodox church and ceremonies are as true a picture of this culture as you'll get.