With the large and prominent place that the Holocaust plays in 20th century history, a lot of people forget that there were many other genocides committed before the Holocaust and many committed after. We have the Armenian genocide in Turkey. There was the genocide in Rwanda, and we still have continuing genocide today in Darfur. The film I just finished watching explores the genocides committed against the Albanian Muslim minority group during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s through the eyes of two Macedonian men caught right in the middle of it. Before the Rain is an astonishingly powerful and emotional piece of foreign film-making, and it helped to continue renewing my faith that this blog is going to expose me to many classic foreign films I never would have seen otherwise. This Independent Spirit Award winner for Best Foreign Film ranks among some of the best foreign films I’ve watched for this blog.
As stated, Before the Rain is about the civil wars breaking out in all of the various Balkan states that resulted in tragic “ethnic cleansings” against the Albanian minorities. As the film’s subtitle at its opening states, the movie is a tale in three parts. The first part of the film is about a young man named Kiril. Kiril is a priest, living in the monastery of an Eastern Orthodox church in rural Macedonia. He awakes to find that an Albanian woman has snuck into his room to escape from the Macedonian militia trying to find her and kill her. Kiril, who has taken a vow of silence, makes its mission to protect and hide the girl from certain death. The second part of the film (and the weakest) is about an English woman named Ann living in London. She works for a photography company and is sleeping with Pulitzer prize winning photographer Alexsandar, a Macedonian immigrant, despite the fact that she’s married. She is especially struck by the horrors of the photographs coming from the Balkans but lives an otherwise normal suburban life until her world is turned upside down when the violence of the Balkans erupts in England. Finally, the last and longest act of the film follows Alexsandar as he returns to Macedonia to continue chronicling the civil war until he finds himself swept up in the violence and must choose sides.
The main themes of the film are the cyclical and futile nature of violence and revenge and how this fuels the never-ending fires of ethnic conflict and strife. It’s done masterfully. When the film is over and you realize how the film was actually structured (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say its non-linear), you see how the director even worked the theme of cycles into the very structure of the film itself. The film does not shy away from the violence and blood shed inherent in a civil war, but it plays it all on a very person and intimate level rather than showing a grand scheme of things. While most films that deal with hot button issues like genocide tend to be very large scale like Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, you get a very specific series of portraits painted in this film, and it adds higher levels of intensity to many of the films most heart-wrenching scenes.
While the entire film is great (even the second act which seems strangely out of place until its explosive end), the first story, that of the young priest, is some of the finest film-making I’ve seen for this blog. The entire movie almost seems disappointing after that until you realize each part is trying to achieve something different. There is such quiet intensity in practically every second of Kiril’s story. I found myself sitting straight up with my covers near my face because the scenes filled me with so much dread. It’s a simple tale of one man trying to take a stand against evil and injustice, but it is done with such emotional strength that you simply have to applaud. If I were judging the movie based on that scene alone, this film would be an A+. It’s especially astounding considering how little dialogue is present during that chapter. Kiril has taken a vow of silence, and yet his actor does a superb job of expressing the tragedy and inhumanity of his surroundings. It was spectacular.
Foreign cinema has the opportunity to tell stories that I would not otherwise be exposed to in an intellectually engaging way. Take for example, Lacombe, Lucien. Before I saw that film, my idea of the French during German occupation was that of noble resistance fighters and valiant subterfuge. History has left out the tales of the Vichy and French cooperators. Prior to Hotel Rwanda, much of the Western world was ignorant of the events of the ethnic cleansings of Africa, but now, we know a little more than we did. I had always assumed that most of the fighting and civil war of the Balkans was limited to Yugoslavia and Bosnia. I did not know how far the cancer of war and violence had spread. As well as being an emotionally powerful and politically courageous film, this film educated me about the injustices and atrocities that are happening in this world, and that simply adds to its appeal. I’ve currently got two other foreign films at home from Netflix and I hope they are as good as this one.
Final Score: A