Before the Rain: Criterion Review

Before the Rain, Milcho Manchevski’s three-part story set in London and war-torn Macedonia, won the 1994 Golden Lion and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. As it gets the Criterion treatment, Gary Couzens reviews.

Before the Rain is a film in three parts. In “Words”, we are in Macedonia. Kiril, an orthodox Christian monk (Grégoire Colin), risks everything to protect a runaway Albanian Muslim girl (Labina Mitevska), whose relatives are out to kill her. “Faces”. Contemporary London. Anne (Katrin Cartlidge) is a photographer, friendly with Macedonian photojournalist Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija). Anne has worked in war zones, but the ethnic tensions and violence of former Yugoslavia is something that she cannot escape, even in her home city. Finally, in “Pictures”, Aleksandar, guilt-ridden because he feels responsible for a man’s death (“my camera killed a man”) returns home to find that he too has to choose sides and do what is right, even at great danger to himself.

Milcho Manchevski’s impressive debut feature premiered in 1994, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. If the synopsis above seems a little vague, that’s intentional as the film has its surprises, and characters are linked in ways that is not apparent at first. The structure is circular, with the ending setting up the beginning. There are indications of the ending early on in the first part, though a first-time viewer most likely won’t pick up on their significance.

The three-part structure, with the sections out of chronological order, is reminiscent of the otherwise very different Pulp Fiction. This is clearly coincidental, though as the two films premiered in the same year, winning the top prizes at different festivals – Tarantino’s film at Cannes, Manchevski’s at Venice. Although Before the Rain is at base a humanist work urging connections between people and tolerance of their differences, it does draw on populist cinema as well. As Ian Christie points out in his essay included with this DVD, in particular he draws on the imagery of the Western – both the latterday American variant made by Sam Peckinpah, and the European ones from Sergio Leone. A key scene, where an argument in a London restaurant turns into a shootout, would not be out of place in one of their films. Manchevski, an American-based Macedonian, began his career making music videos, and his visual language is more “American” (emphasising narrative) than it is “European” (emphasising mood, character, atmosphere and downplaying the storyline). The cinematography – by Manuel Teran, who took over from Darius Khondji early in production – has, in the Macedonian sequences, an orange, magic-hour cast to it that’s not uncharacteristic of mainstream cinema at the time. Subtitles apart (the film is mostly in Macedonian and Albanian, with English primarily confined to the middle section), there’s little here that you wouldn’t find in a major studio’s more upscale output.

This isn’t to deny the film’s seriousness of intent. As mentioned above the storyline forms a circle, which is a motif that runs through the film. This adds up to a despairing statement: tensions between races and creeds will always be with us, and will provoke war and bloodshed which will never end.

It’s possible to see all this as a little glib – the film’s various parts fit together a little too neatly. (There are one or two cultural false notes: for example, an Englishman would refer to “Northern Ireland” rather than “Ulster”.) Before the Rain is certainly idealistic, though that’s no bad thing. On the plus side, there are commanding performances from the leads. This was the film that brought Croatian actor Serbedzija to international prominence. Katrin Cartlidge was no stranger to challenging cinema, having begun with Mike Leigh and would go on to Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan, amongst others, before her untimely death in 2002 at the age of forty-one. And let’s not forget Grégoire Colin, who in the absence of much dialogue (his character is under a vow of silence) has to convey much with his face and body language alone, and Labina Mitevska, as the tomboyish Muslim girl he tries to protect.


Before the Rain is number 436 in the Criterion Collection, and comprises a single dual-layered NTSC disc encoded for Region 1 only.

The DVD transfer is director-approved and is in what Criterion describes as “the original ratio of 1.78:1”. The first quibble is a pedantic one: 1.78:1 (16:9) isn’t a cinematic ratio, the nearest equivalents being the very common 1.85:1 and the much less often used 1.75:1. As for what the original ratio of Before the Rain was, I could not say without having seen the film in a cinema, and I haven’t. However, there is evidence that the original ratio is in fact 2.35:1 (or 2.39:1 if you prefer – much the same thing) which means that the image has been cropped at the sides. At least four generally reliable sources state that the film was shot with anamorphic lenses (Technovision): Sight & Sound (a correction published in the December 1997 issue), Maltin’s Movie Guide and, online, James Berardinelli, Variety (Deborah Young). Anamorphic films are characterised by vertical distortion of out-of-focus backgrounds, an example of which can be seen in the screengrab above – look at the lights in screen bottom left. Examples are admittedly few and far between, as most scenes have a fair amount of depth of field. Compositionally, the film doesn’t seem to suffer: like very many anamorphic Scope films, it has clearly been shot with the understanding that it will be cropped to 4:3 for TV or video showing, and that was even more true in 1994 than it is now. Ultimately, it’s Manchevski’s film and he can present it as he sees fit – he wouldn’t be the first director to prefer black bars be absent for home viewing and I’m sure he won’t be the last either. As for the transfer itself, it’s certainly up to Criterion’s high standards, with the brighter colours of Macedonia and the more desaturated look of London coming over strongly. There is some grain present, especially in darker scenes, but I suspect that’s down to the original film.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack replicates the Dolby SR mix the film had in cinemas. It’s not especially elaborate, but it’s clear and it does its job. Even without a LFE channel, the gunshots in the restaurant scene have a lot of impact. Subtitles are provided only for the Albanian and Macedonian dialogue, not for the English.

Manchevski provides a commentary, where he’s interviewed by Annette Insdorf. She rates the film rather higher than I do, reckoning it one of the best debut features of the last twenty years. She has also done her homework, and the result is a very informative talk, with the director being very forthcoming about his intentions in making the film.

Also provided is a video interview with Rade Serbedzija (16:32), recorded in 2008. The actor talks about how he was approached to make the film. He was struggling to make a living in London at the time – Anthony Andrews, who had worked with him in the 1980s, offered to put him and his family up in his house when the war began. Enter Milcho Manchevski, who had written the part of Aleksandar for him. Serbedzija talks about the impact Before the Rain had on his career, leading to him working for Stanley Kubrick amongst others. He also talks about the differing demands of film acting as opposed to stage acting: the former demands more of the actor’s lived experience whereas in the latter you can get away with artifice. The film clips shown include some spoilers.

“Bahind the Scenes in Macedonia” (15:21) is a making-of featurette shot in 1993, made up of the usual format of film extracts (in 1.85:1), interviews with the director and producers and behind-the-scenes footage. A separate item presents some more on-set footage (5:20)

Next up are some selections from the soundtrack, played by the Macedonian band Anastasia, whose music mixes traditional instruments and rhythms with electronics. There are six links, which take you to the appropriate part of the film where the music is played.

Three trailers are presented, the international one with a Polygram logo (2:14) and the US one with a Gramercy logo (2:15). The third is Manchevski’s recut version of the US trailer (2:16), which he was unhappy with. This trailer was never shown theatrically.

A stills gallery is divided into two sections. The first consists of behind-the-scenes photographs, the second storyboards, drawings and letters. Including the last on this DVD is remarkably open on Manchevski’s part, as they reveal how fraught the production was, with money rapidly running out.

The final two extras on the disc are more relevant to the director than to his film. The first is a reproduction of seventy-nine still photographs from his 1999 book Street. These are indexed in four sections, with a director’s statement taking up a single text page. The final item is Manchevski’s black and white video for Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” (4:04), which won the MTV Award for Best Rap Video of 1992.

Criterion’s booklet contains an essay, “Never-Ending Story” by Ian Christie. This contains major spoilers, so read it after you have seen the film.

Manchevski made a debut film to be reckoned with. Before the Rain became the first film (mainly) in the Macedonian language to be widely seen and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. (Burnt by the Sun won.) He followed it with Dust in 2001, which had disastrous reviews and has been little seen, and not by me. So the jury is still out, but in the meantime Criterion have done a fine job with Before the Rain..


Updated: Jul 10, 2008

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