In an ancient hilltop monastery in Macedonia, a young monk named Kiril (Gregoire Colin of Olivier, Olivier) finds a frightened girl (Labina Mitevska) hiding in his cell. She is, we learn, the victim of ethnic hatred, and once her enemies track her down, the peace of this retreat is violently, permanently shattered.
In a London restaurant Anne (Katrin Cartlidge of Naked) and her estranged husband meet to discuss their problems. Their conversation is interrupted by a loud argument between a waiter and a customer. The customer leaves, then returns and sprays the room with shots, killing the husband, among others.
A famous photographer, Aleksander (played by a fine actor of the former Yugoslavia, Rade Serbedzija), who has become famous and burned-out taking pictures of war and its victims, returns to his native Macedonian village seeking peace. What he finds instead are Christians and Muslims feuding bitterly. He is at last caught in the kind of deadly cross fire he had managed to elude elsewhere.
These lives and deaths are ultimately linked in writer-director Milcho Manchevski's intricately structured Before the Rain, an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film. Anne and Aleksander are lovers--that is why her marriage is in trouble--while the refugee hiding in the monastery is the daughter of Aleksander's former lover. Even when the connections between characters are not that intimate, they sometimes know one another by sight, because commerce and communications keep shrinking the world. War zones nowadays have area codes, and the vision of a terrorist with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a cellular phone in the other, talking to some faraway co-conspirator (or maybe his mother), is not farfetched. Manchevski makes this point almost surrealistically: his peasant gunmen go about their bloody business clad in Nikes and other American-made sports gear.
But wardrobe merely hints at a larger linkage that Manchevski, a young Macedonian filmmaker who somehow ended up at Southern Illinois University and moved on to music videos, wants to make. It is put simply by a doctor who is a minor character in his film: "War is a virus," meaning that, in an era of ethnic and religious conflict, the disease can be carried everywhere by impassioned terrorists and can infect anyone-in this case the young priest, the isolated Anne (who works as a photo editor, coolly studying images of violence) or even the seemingly well-inoculated Aleksander, who has seen and recorded most of the horrors of our time yet remains physically unscathed.
Telling his story in three movements (Words, Faces and Pictures), Manchevski deliberately blurs group identities. You have to strain to understand what ideals the people in this film are willing to die for (and, more to the point, kill for). One's idea of God as opposed to another's? The heritage of one's blood as opposed to that of someone else's? As we lean in to catch their garbled, often hysterical self-justifications, we also catch a larger point--that none of these principles is worth a single human life.
It can be argued that when the blame for tragedies like those afflicting the former Yugoslavia is generalized, or attributed to cosmic forces, individuals who may be guilty of terrible crimes escape just condemnation.