Before the Rain
The first film made in the newly independent Republic of Macedonia, Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain crosscuts the stories of an orthodox Christian monk (Grégoire Colin), a British photo agent (Katrin Cartlidge), and a native Macedonian war photographer (Rade Šerbedžija) to paint a portrait of simmering ethnic and religious hatred about to reach its boiling point. Made during the strife of the war-torn Balkan states in the nineties, this gripping triptych of love and violence is also a timeless evocation of the loss of pastoral innocence, and remains one of recent cinema’s most powerful laments on the futility of war.
The Criterion Collection presents the region 1 DVD premiere of Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this dual-layered disc. It has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image transfer is quite incredible, presenting a very sharp, very crisp picture. Colours are perfectly saturated, with nice reds and perfect skin tones. Detail on close up shots is about as good as you’re going to get with a standard DVD release and long shots also look quite beautiful. The print has been greatly cleaned up as I don’t recall one instance of debris ever showing up. This is a stellar, sharp transfer from Criterion.
The film comes with a simple 2.0 Dolby Surround track. The sound quality is excellent, dialogue is sharp and clear, and the wonderful score sounds perfect. The track in general remains front heavy, never really utilizing the surrounds too much. There’s is the occasional sound effect in the back (like a bird chirping) and the music does sneak back there, but most everything is concentrated towards the front three speakers. There are sequences in the film that would qualify as “action” scenes and they are a little louder but also remain concentrated to the fronts. Still, it’s a crystal clear soundtrack and one of the better 2.0 surround tracks I’ve heard.
For its DVD premiere Criterion has seen fit to pack in quite a few supplements on this single-disc release. The big one would be an audio commentary featuring film scholar Annette Insdorf and director Milcho Manchevski. The commentary pretty much consists of Insdorf interviewing Manchevski, with her stating right off that she considers the film to be the best “First” film that she has seen by a director. These types of tracks, which generally come off as more Q&A, are not my favourite type but I was surprised by this one. While Insdorf is pretty much there to keep the track going by asking questions, as well as pointing out her personal interpretations of the film (which isn’t always what Manchevski intended according to his responses,) Manchevski is an excellent speaker and keeps it interesting, talking about the themes he was going for, how the narrative came about (which wasn’t originally planned by the sounds of it,) how the film got financing, how he was inspired to make it, his influences, and working with the actors (and briefly discussing Katrin Cartlidge’s death.) He even takes a moment to point out that, no, that cat was not a real cat. I think what caught me most off guard is that while the film is very deep and quite heavy, the track overall has a light feel to it. Not to say that they don’t look at the heavy aspects of the film, because they do, but the overall tone feels like a conversation between two friends, which makes it actually quite entertaining to listen to. It’s an excellent track and well worth getting into.
There is also a director’s text note with the track, which is just a title screen where the director briefly states why he is recording a commentary despite the fact he believes the film should speak for itself (his reason seems to be that he wants to note some things so that they don’t get lost.)
The commentary track is found on the main menu. Next on the main menu is “Supplements” and this screen presents to you the remainder of supplements on the disc. The first one is a video interview with Rade Serbedzija. This interview is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs about 15-minutes. Mixed in with clips from the film, Rade discusses how he came about to work on this film. Having fled Sarajevo he went to London with his family. Needing work (badly) he was approached by Manchevski, who was a fan of the actor/poet’s work, and offered him the role in this film. After reading the script he quickly accepted. Rade discusses briefly the similarities between what is in the film and what he fled from and how he used that for his performance, as well as discussing working with the director and Katrin. Another feature worth looking at.
Next is “BEHIND THE SCENES IN MACEDONIA”, a roughly 16-minute bit made during the filming of Before the Rain in 1993. This has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions, presented in 1.33:1. Consisting of some behind-the-scene footage and brief interviews with various members of the cast and crew (including Manchevski, Serbedzija, a couple of the producers and even a grip,) they discuss issues with filming in Macedonia (moving equipment around, working with Macedonian crew members, issues with locals,) what they feel the film is about, and both Manchevski and Serbedzija talk a bit about what it’s like to return to the region (Serbedzija feels a certain hostility towards him.) It’s not too in-depth and really feels more like a PR piece, but there is some decent information in it. If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at the film the commentary is the better route to go.
Next up is “on-set footage,” a 5-minute collection of behind the scenes footage, showing everyone at work. This footage looks to be from the shooting of the last section of the film. It gives an idea of the conditions the crew had to deal with but is probably nothing you haven’t seen before on other DVD extras of this nature. This footage is presented in 1.33:1 and has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
The next section is called “Soundtrack Selections” which presents selections of the film’s soundtrack by the band Anastasia. You have the choice of playing all or selecting individual pieces from the index. There are six in total. Once you make your choice you’re taken to the section of the film that plays the selected score and the scene plays out until the music is done. Subtitles with the title of the piece are displayed at the bottom of the screen. The music is presented in Dolby Surround and sounds to be of the same quality as it appears in the film. I love the score to this film and do like the feature but it still contains the film’s sound effects and I’m sure it’s not the whole piece that is played.
Next on the list is “Trailers,” which of course presents a few trailers, all enhanced for widescreen televisions. The first trailer is the International Trailer, which captures the film rather well, not focusing on any particular character. Unlike the American trailer, which focuses on the Katrin Cartlidge character, giving one the idea that this film is some romantic adventure through Macedonia (or something along those lines) with a terrible voice-over. An interesting addition here is Manchevski’s recut of the American trailer (which he of course didn’t like.) It’s not too different, using the same voice-over and still focusing more on the Cartlidge/ Serbedzija relationship, but he uses different images presenting a somewhat darker looking movie than what the original American trailer was going for (it’s noted that Manchevski’s cut was never used.)
“Stills Gallery” presents two separate categories. “Behind-the-scenes photographs” presents a collection of black and white stills as well as colour ones. This presents your typical cast and crew shots, as well as a photo from a deleted scene. Shots taken at the Venice Film Festival are also shown including a shot of Machevski with Ang Lee and Michelangelo Antonioni. “Storyboards, drawings, letters” is just that. We see a collection of storyboards as well as drawings and plans for certain shots. Letters written during the production are also shown, with a brief written intro by Manchevski. The letters deal a lot with the production and some issues that came up early on (money, materials, time constraints, the band used for the score – Polygram had issues with the selection.) They’re both small galleries but worth looking through. The photos are navigated through using the arrows on your remote and text descriptions precede most photos.
“Street Photography” presents some of Manchevski’s photos from his 1999 book of photographs, “Street.” It has a text intro by Manchevski and 79 photos, which are divided into roughly groups of 20 so that you can start viewing them from any point. Like the “Stills Gallery” you use your remote to skip through the photos. They’re a decent collection and Machevski has a keen eye. Definitely worth looking through.And finally, Criterion presents Manchevski’s award winning music video (MTV winner for best rap video) for Arrested Development’s “Tennessee”. Presented non-anamorphic, I can’t say I’m a fan of the song, but it’s a fairly stylish looking video.
And rounding off the release, is a booklet with a 5-page essay by Ian Christie, which examines the film and the conflict that was going on in the Balkans during its release. It makes for an excellent, brief read.
And that closes off the supplements. They’re all fairly solid, but if you’re only going to bother with a couple I’d check out the commentary and the interview. Both are most definitely worth your time.
As for the release in general, it’s a must. The film is absolutely incredible and Criterion’s transfer is fantastic. An incredible release from the folks at Criterion.