Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ian Christie: Before the Rain: Never-Ending Story

Before the Rain: Never-Ending Story
By Ian Christie

Before the Rain brought a vision of “Balkan conflict” to the world that caused a sensation in the mid-1990s, winning the Golden Lion in Venice and an Academy Award nomination. Five years of increasingly horrific news from the former Yugoslavia, with fierce fighting and massacres in Croatia and Bosnia, made Milcho Manchevski’s searing yet lyrical film timely to a degree that few filmmakers have ever achieved. But this is far from a documentary treatment of Balkan violence, and the country that Manchevski put on the map—his native Macedonia—was in fact the only Balkan state at that time not to have been engulfed by war or ethnic conflict.

Manchevski had not set out to explain the devastating sequence of events that started in 1991, as federal Yugoslavia dissolved during the year that saw the Soviet Union itself fall apart. Having grown up in Skopje, he finished his film education in the United States, where he began to make a reputation in music videos during the eighties. And the arresting images and teasing dramatic structure of Before the Rain draw something from this experience. But if Manchevski belongs to the generation of filmmakers who have grown up with the pop poetry of music videos as part of their natural vocabulary, his other inspiration is surely the western—an impression confirmed by his equally ambitious second feature, Dust (2001).

Think of the westerns of Sam Peckinpah, elegiac tributes to a way of life being crushed by modernity. Or of Sergio Leone, whose films were once contemptuously known as “spaghetti westerns” but were actually baroque variations on the great American western tradition, and influenced postsixties filmmakers everywhere. Peckinpah and Leone dealt in myth rather than history, and weren’t afraid to use extreme violence for both artistic and realistic effect. The violence that rips through Before the Rain, on Macedonian hillsides and in a London restaurant, draws on such mentors for its impact. And when Manchevski insists that his film is not “about” Macedonia, or even just the Balkans, he’s surely aspiring to that same universality of late, great westerns such as Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch. The figure that his hero, Aleksandar, cuts is already a romantic one in London but becomes very definitely a westerner back in Macedonia, as he returns to his old village, only to be immediately confronted by a gun-toting youngster.

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