LOVE IN A WAR ZONE

LOVE IN A WAR ZONE

Milcho Manchevski’s 1994 movie Before the Rain, which won the Golden Lion at Venice that year, and which is structured in three interweaving parts, begins with an idyllic vision of rural peacefulness, a cruel mirage if ever there was. It is late evening above a massive beautiful lake and we are in the rugged hills of Macedonia (currently the Republic of North Macedonia and before that and to placate the Greeks, FYROM, meaning the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). We are also in the vicinity of a remote Orthodox monastery where an old bearded abbot is chatting to a clean-shaven and handsome young monk called Kiril (played by French actor Gregoire Colin, born 1975) though the chatting is unilateral as Kiril has taken a vow of silence and not spoken a word for 2 years. Later we listen to the monks singing their resonant Macedonian Orthodox liturgy, which sounds very much like the Greek kind, and the air is ripe with transcendent peacefulness so it seems. But warning signs to the contrary are already apparent among the raucous little boys playing outside the monastery. They have found 2 wild tortoises, have tied sticks above their heads, and are urging them to charge and kill their opponent. Later these kids chance upon some discarded ammunition, so they light a fire and the bullets start up a ricocheting and deafening pyrotechnic display which delights them no end…

When Kiril gets into bed that night in his spartan wooden chambers, he immediately leaps out of his skin. There is someone in the bed, and though it looks like a young boy in his mid teens, it is in fact a girl with her hair cropped short. She is an ethnic Albanian called Zamira (played by Labina Mitevska, born 1975) who understands no Macedonian, and he likewise has no Albanian, and in any case is a deliberate mute. Nevertheless, she manages to communicate that she is a fugitive on the run from a bunch of local Slavs, as she had killed one of their goatherds with a pitchfork. The film which is in three interlocking sections entitled ‘Words’, ‘Faces’, ‘Pictures’ never explains why exactly she killed the Slav in her nearby village, but the best guess is that being at least twice her age he was molesting her or worse. The goatherd’s friends and relatives are in rapid pursuit, and very soon are battering on the door of the monastery, demanding to search for the Albanian ‘whore’. The old abbot demurs and urges them to turn the other cheek, but their gun-toting leader quotes Mosaic law and says no it must be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…

To put things in context, Macedonia is principally a Slav country, but with a substantial 25% Albanian minority. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics, Macedonia escaped the worst horrors of genocide evident in Bosnia and parts of Croatia, and only started to suffer serious ethnic tension in 1999, when adjacent Kosovo with its Albanian majority was invaded by the Serbs. This film is set somewhere in the early 1990s around the time of the Balkan War in Bosnia, and although there are no bloodbaths, there is no love lost between the Christian Slavs and the mostly Muslim Albanians, and especially in remote rural communities. When Kiril who is a supposedly sacrosanct priest, makes a mild attempt to restrain one of the vigilantes in his hunt for the ‘slut’, he is punched viciously in the face. The search party are a motley and unsavoury crew, including cousins of the murdered goatherd plus a rowdy and disturbed young thug who plays aggressive punk music on his Walkman and is trigger happy to boot. Just for the hell of it he blasts a little cat to pieces, and fires his gun off into the night when everyone else is trying to sleep. Despite a thorough search of Kiril’s quarters and the rest of the monastery, the invaders find nothing, and they decide to camp down outside for the night. At this stage, Kiril makes a crucial resolution regarding himself and his vocation, for he packs a battered suitcase and escapes with Zamira across the hills, and he also breaks his vow of silence and indicates that for her safety he will take her to the Macedonian capital of Skopje, or even to his uncle in England. To cap all that, he declares in Macedonian that he loves her, whereupon Zamira stares at him in surprise, then smiles and apparently understands.

The film’s director Manchevski (born 1959) is a Macedonian Slav who has spent much of his adult life in New York, where as well as penning memoirs and theoretical works he has made epic multilingual movies (typically in Macedonian, English, French and Albanian) which are structurally sophisticated and seem to prefigure directors like Inarritu and his 2006 Babel. Best known perhaps is the 2001 Dust starring Joseph Fiennes, that weaves a tapestry of narratives across centuries, and features a contemporary New York thief, as well as Macedonian revolutionaries under the Ottoman empire. One indicator of Manchevski’s impressive maturity as a film maker, is his rigorous even-handedness when it comes to political and social realities, and which is not always comfortable for the audience. For just as the two waifs Kiril and Zamira are successfully escaping from the Slav pursuers, they are surrounded by a group of rustic Albanians in their typical Shiptar hats, all of them armed and all of them furious with their relative Zamira who they are trying to rescue from the vigilantes.

“Christian scum!” snarls the old man who is Zamira’s grandfather, and one of his sons kicks Kiril to the ground and stands on his back.

The grandfather then starts slapping Zamira hard across the face, and tells her she is behaving like a whore when she is alone and unchaperoned with this Christian.

“I cut your hair to make you behave yourself! Do you want me to shave your head?”

Zamira tells him that Kiril risked his life by sheltering her in the monastery, so that her smileless grandfather relents and orders Kiril to disappear. The Slav monk who loves Zamira hesitates but several rifles are pointed at them, and fearing for her safety he moves off across the hills. The young girl can’t control herself then, but shouts out that she loves Kiril and races after him, ignoring all commands to return. At which point her brother blasts her with his huge automatic, and her grandfather indicates no more than a stern resignation as she lies dying on the grass with Kiril kneeling over her.

Such is the first section ‘Words’, and like the two that follow on, it is about 40 minutes long. The second, ‘Faces’ switches to the polar opposite of rural Macedonia, in the form of fashionable central London. We are now with a press photographer in her early thirties called Anne, played by the late Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002) who died tragically young at only 41. Aside from being an award-winning Mike Leigh regular, Cartlidge is esteemed all over the Balkans, for in addition to working with Manchevski, she was in Danis Tanovic’s 2001 film about the Bosnian war No Man’s Land, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar that year. Anne is in an unhappy marriage with Nick (Jay Villiers, born 1961, familiar from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and is also romantically involved with a celebrated war photographer called Aleksander who happens to be a Macedonian, and is portrayed by the Croatian, Rade Serbedzija, born 1946, one of Yugoslavia’s best known actors in the 70s and 80s. They meet up in London where Aleksander kisses her feverishly inside the taxi, then tells her that despite all his worldly success he doesn’t know what to do with his life. He is also consumed with guilt, as he happens once to have killed a man. Anne cries to hear this, but on pressing him learns that it is a guilt at one remove so to speak. Years ago, interviewing some revolutionary cadre in the Middle East, Aleksander had joked that he had nothing very exciting to show him, whereupon the swaggering captain had pulled a nearby prisoner out of his line, and shot him dead on the spot. Today Aleksander suddenly invites Anne to move to Macedonia and settle down with him, which of course she tells him is impossible, though she does not reveal one significant reason. That evening she is meeting in an expensive London restaurant with her husband Nick (they are currently living apart) where she is obliged to give him both good and bad news. She tells Nick that she is pregnant and by him, but as he forces celebratory champagne on her, and begs for reconciliation, she informs him that no, she wants a divorce. Nick is terribly upset and about to leave, when suddenly an altercation breaks out nearby. A bearded and arrogant foreigner in his forties, who is speaking some Balkan language, possibly Macedonian, instead of quietly paying his bill, starts shouting at the waiter and contemptuously flinging notes in his face. Before long things escalate, and the ranting customer starts viciously beating up the waiter and anyone else who tries to intervene. Finally, cursing angrily at everyone, the assailant is propelled out of the door, after which the silky old manager apologises humorously to his customers, and everything settles down. But ten minutes later the same man returns with a gun, and for a full five minutes starts blasting at everyone inside. Anne crouches down and screams her terror and when the gunman departs, gropes blindly for Nick on the glass strewn floor. Eventually she turns over a body, and beholds the face of her husband, which is a gory and shattered mess…

“Oh your face,” she gasps, in her choking grief. “Your face…”

‘Faces’ ends on that tragic note, just as ‘Words’ finishes with the young girl Zamira being grieved over by Kiril the former monk. The last section, ‘Pictures’, shows Aleksander hoping to find a meaning to his hectic life by returning to settle in Macedonia. His remote and primitive village is split into its Slav and Albanian halves, and the two have virtually nil contact.  On his walk from the bus to his ruin of a house, he is stopped by a long-haired gun-toting kid, unaware he is the villager who made it big as a leading war photographer. Aleksander seizes the weapon, then clouts the surly youth, but once reached the village he is rapturously welcomed by his relatives. Partying in earnest begins, and during the table conversation his cousin Zdrave remarks with disgust that the Albanians breed like rabbits. The next morning a divorced female cousin gets into his bed, but the new arrival is half dead from the celebrations and can barely stir. In any case, one very disturbing elephant in the room is that Aleksander is still emotionally attached to an Albanian woman Hana (Silvija Stojanovska, born 1960), recently widowed from her Albanian husband. He decides he will go and visit his teenage love and take presents for her children, so crosses to the Albanian side where he is greeted stonily by her father. As he shows his gifts for the grandchildren, the old man relents and shouts of Hana who is in the women’s quarters, to bring the guest some coffee and loukoumi. In the meantime Hana’s brother arrives and asks what the hell the Slav is doing here. His father orders him to shut up, whereupon he glares at Aleksander and calmly offers to slit his throat. Then Hana appears, looking statuesque and seemingly without emotion. She shows no signs of her teenage attachment, nor is she responsive to Aleksander’s gifts. Indeed, she has something far more pressing to tell him, which is that his cousin Zdrave has just kidnapped her young daughter Zamira. Zamira had stabbed one of the Slav goatherds, so they have taken her captive, and both she and Hana need Aleksander’s help. Can he go and talk to Zdrave, and get her daughter back before they kill her?

Aleksander proceeds to do just that, and as he enters Zdrave’s house and sees how young the captive is, he cannot hide his contempt.

“But she is just a child…”

Ignoring Zdrave, he takes Zamira’s hand and leads her out, just as if he was leading out any other child by the hand. His cousin blusters panicky warnings, but Aleksander keeps on going, until urged on by his friends, Zdrave lifts his automatic and shoots him dead. Unlike the endings of ‘Faces’ and ‘Words’ there is no one here to grieve over the dead hero Aleksander, who has sacrificed himself for a child. For terrified Zamira races off from the gang of Slavs, and as we learn in ‘Faces’, ends up hiding in a monastery where she is temporarily protected by a Macedonian monk. Aleksander who had felt painful guilt at indirectly killing a man, has sacrificed himself for what will only be a delayed death for the child called Zamira, albeit he was unable to foresee the cruelty of her future. And you will also note the ingenious and moving premise of this 3 part film, and reflect that it could have been ordered in any of 3 possible sequences, and to that extent perhaps Chronology and the Sequential are more like mirages than what we choose to call Realities.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday December 11th

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