The Balkan war was a distant distraction to America in the mid-1990s, a religious and cultural battle that was mostly framed around Clinton's peacekeeper doctrine of engagement and Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes. The public had little understanding of either, making Before the Rain a film that is completely divorced from cultural context - or at least it was until 9/11 placed the centuries-old battle between Islam and Christianity at our doorstep. Without going into the politics of that horrifying day, a modern viewing of Before the Rain makes clear not just the significance of the conflict the film depicts, but the timeless nature of its message.
Before the Rain is composed of three interconnected stories: a monk who has taken a vow of silence hides an Albanian girl being hunted down by Macedonians, a London photo agent deals with her affair with a war photographer, and the same photographer returns to his home in Macedonia after years away. What's most interesting about the structure Manchevski uses here is that it has been separated not just from linear chronology but from a logical one as well. Really, there is no way the events of the film could have happened in the way that they do (unless the second story is wildly fractured), since people are dead who come alive and vice versa. This illogical plot separates the film from its ostensibly docudramatic intentions, just as the film's themes have been separated from its literal grounding. This "print the legend" philosophy ties in nicely with the interesting comparison between the film and the Western genre made in Criterion's accompanying essay (though I was surprised Christie didn't point out the most obvious connection: the scene of a group of kids circling a turtle, a direct nod to Peckinpah's opening of The Wild Bunch).
The recurring saying of the film is "Time never dies, the circle is not round." This line - which as far as I can tell is native to the film - is in the mouths of characters and graffitied onto the walls of London. Unsurprisingly, it's the key to the film's central message of violence begetting new violence in a neverending spiral of hate and destruction. This is not a new message, of course, so beyond the cultural novelty of a Macedonian film providing a unique perspective from an area of the world to which we are rarely exposed (or I guess, as claimed in the depressing first sentence of the New Yorker review of the film, an opportunity for us to expand our cultural bragging rights) Before the Rain needs more to offer. Fortunately, Manchevski's elliptical plotting, beautiful cinematography, and compelling characters (most notably the photographer, who is the heart and center of the film) make the movie not just relevant, but truly moving. I wouldn't call Before the Rain a masterpiece, but labels are for another time and right now I'm glad Criterion has made this little movie widely available for an American audience that is so rarely shown the humanity of the overlooked corners of the world.