At the Arthouse
First World privilege meets Third World suffering in Even the Rain: Finally, amovie that's about something
If you’re thinking that contemporary cinema lacks ideas, and if that thought makes you unhappy, then you should check out Even the Rain. This Spanish film takes on the Spanish conquest of the so-called New World, the perils and injustices of globalization, and the tension between art and real life.
It even demonstrates the abiding, if seldom invoked, moral power of Christianity.
In truth, the bag that writer Paul Laverty and Spanish actress-turned-director Icíar Bollaín have forced all these ideas into feels a bit lumpy. But moments here work so well, and I’m so nostalgic for the days when movies were occasionally about something, that I’m happy to recommend it.
The film begins with a Spanish crew arriving in Latin America to make a debunking movie about Columbus, and, by extension, about European empire building. But, in the first of a series of heavy-handed ironies, the crew isn’t setting up shop in the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first landed, but rather in Bolivia, because the people in that impoverished country will work cheaper as extras.
Get it? The movie which seeks to criticize the Spaniards of 500 years ago is itself guilty of exploiting the natives.
That is an obvious irony, but nevertheless a nagging one. How can a First World enterprise interact with the Third World without exploitation? Do the First Worlders really have to give up their privileges to make that work? If so, who among us is really willing to give up our goodies?
Not Sebastian (Gael García Bernal), the apparently idealistic director. He wants to expose Columbus as the exploiter and slaver that he was, but, when push comes to shove, he puts the making of his film above the well being of his Bolivian extras. When a real-life protest breaks out, created by the Bolivian government’s attempt to privatize the public water supplies, Sebastian and producer Costa (Luis Tosar) are mostly concerned with how the protests will affect their film.
(In case you’re thinking this sounds far-fetched, and that no government would treat access to water as anything other than a basic right, know that in 2000 the Bolivian government did indeed try to sell its country’s water rights to a consortium of international corporations, including Bechtel.)
They’re particularly concerned because Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the local actor they’ve found to play the part of the Taino Indian leader Columbus had executed, is more concerned with the leading the water protests than with finishing their movie. “There are more important things than your movie,” he tells the director and producer. “Water is life.”
Two very different types of scenes work best here. The “movie” scenes which show Columbus and the original exploitation of the natives are very powerful, and call to mind Terrence Malik’s semi-masterpiece The New World. This is especially true when actors depict a couple of heroic Catholic priests from 500 years ago, Bartolomé de las Casas, who is remembered, but not often enough, for his early defense of the native peoples, and especially the almost totally forgotten Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican who was apparently the first European to rail against the exploitation of the natives.
It’s in these scenes that Even the Rain's complicated conceit — that it’s an anti-exploitation film being made by exploitative filmmakers — becomes most powerful, and reminds the viewer who is interested in such things just how radical a religion Christianity can be.
The film also works well in a totally different key — a modern documentary key — when it’s reconstructing the water rights riots that rocked Bolivia. Director Bollaín isn’t able to join these two elements seamlessly; instead she gives us an overflow of powerful images and ideas.
For me that was certainly enough.