Review: Even the Rain (También la lluvia)


Even the Rain

If today's political activists are seeking inspiration from history, they should look no further than the 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. As one of the early Spanish settlers in the West Indies, Las Casas participated in many of the atrocities -- slavery, torture and murder -- the settlers committed against the indigenous peoples. But Las Casas later saw the error of his ways, gave up his slaves, and devoted his life to fighting for the rights of the Indians, whom his fellow colonists considered less than human. Through his writings and activism, Las Casas is considered one of the first advocates for universal human rights.

Sadly, Las Casas probably would be very disillusioned by the state of today's world, where oppressed peoples continue to suffer in so many ways. But he also might find hope, for his modern-day activist brethren are still raging against their oppressors. The fight goes on.

This perpetual struggle for human rights is the backdrop for the stellar movie Even the Rain (También la lluvia), in which Las Casas is both a character and an inspiration. Spain's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, Even the Rain is a brutal, beautiful and emotionally wrenching examination of how today's struggle for social and economic justice has deep roots in history.

A narrative feature set during actual events in Bolivia in 2000, Even the Rain is the story of a Spanish film crew that arrives in Bolivia to make a revisionist film about the brutal Spanish conquest of Latin America some 500 years earlier. Although his movie is set in Santo Domingo, producer Costa (Luis Tosar) has chosen Cochabamba, Bolivia as a stand-in due to the country's very low production costs. (The Bolivian peasant extras will work for $2 a day.)

Things get complicated from the day the film crew arrives in Cochabamba. An open casting call nearly becomes a riot when the impoverished locals learn that most of them won't even be interviewed, much less hired, for parts. To appease the outspoken local Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), Costa and his director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) cast him as the film's Indian leader, Hatuey.

Daniel is a natural for the part, but there is a problem: He's also an activist leading his fellow citizens in a nationwide protest against a multinational corporation's plans to privatize Bolivia's water supply. (The plans and protest were real-life events. The firm planned to privatize all water sources and forbid anyone to collect water from rivers, wells or even the rain – hence, the film's title.) The protest is peaceful at first, but things turn violent when the police fight back, and Daniel's involvement threatens to disrupt the shooting schedule.

At first, Costa and Sebastián disregard the Bolivian peasants' plight; they just want to complete their film and leave before the situation becomes too dangerous. But as they witness the government's brutal response to the protest, they begin to sympathize with Daniel and his people. Inevitably, they must ask themselves whether their film is more important than the rebellion that surrounds them.

With Even the Rain's film-within-a-film structure, there are obvious parallels between the historical oppression of indigenous peoples by the Spanish conquistadors -- captured with horrific, anger-provoking realism in Costa and Sebastián's film -- and the modern-day oppression of poor Bolivians by a heartless corporation and its government puppets. The connections are many and painful to watch. In one scene, we see 16th-century Europeans brutally beating West Indian natives; in another, 21st-century Bolivian police are beating peasants just as brutally. An arrogantly callous Christopher Columbus (Karra Elejalde) shows no emotion as he directs his henchmen to commit unimaginably bloody acts; 500 years later, a Bolivian government official is just as arrogant and callous, blithely dismissing the peasants' fight to keep their life-sustaining water rights as "the cult of the victim versus modernization."

Even the Rain is a film of great moral complexity; beneath its message that things never really change is an equally powerful message that the line between right and wrong isn't always obvious. (Exhibit A is that the filmmakers have no problem with exploiting the peasants' cheap labor, but are appalled at how much the Evil Giant Corporation plans to charge them for water.) Good-vs-evil movies often suffer from simplistic characters who are entirely good or entirely evil. But there are no saints in Even the Rain; the characters are very (and sometimes vexingly) human, often saying and doing the wrong things and confronting their own moral failings. Their stories are, of course, allegories for our society's larger moral failings.

Even the Rain is flawlessly executed, seamlessly blending reality and fiction and combining its historical film scenes and larger story. Thanks to Icíar Bollaín's fine direction, the action flows so effortlessly between the two elements (both filmed with stunning visuals by Alex Catalán) that they often seem like parallel narratives rather than a film within a film. It's easy to forget that Columbus, Las Casas and the West Indians are actors-playing-actors in roles-within-roles, as they're every bit as "real" as Costa, Sebastián and Daniel. This seamlessness is used to great effect, further reinforcing the parallels between the two stories and the idea that human cruelty is nothing new.

The film's entire cast is terrific, but the standout is Aduviri as Daniel/Hatuey, who gives both his characters distinct personalities with a few common traits. Daniel and Hatuey are both outspoken rebels, but they're otherwise dissimilar and live in entirely different worlds that are centuries apart. It may not be much of a stretch for Aduviri to disappear into Daniel. But he also pulls off the far more difficult acting task of portraying an actor completely inhabiting a role, as his Daniel also completely disappears into Hatuey.

Tosar is also perfect as the conflicted, introspective Costa, probably the film's most nuanced character. García Bernal gives his usual reliable performance as Sebastián, a character far less sympathetic than the goodhearted souls García Bernal often plays. I also credit Carlos Santos for his work as Alberto, a slightly cynical actor who plays Las Casas. Alberto has little screen time, and Las Casas hasn't much more. But in many ways, Las Casas is the film's most important character: With his humanity and courage, he serves as the moral anchor and inspiration for both stories.

As a longtime activist who believes in speaking truth to power, I found Even the Rain especially moving. It's a riveting, gut-punching take on the human condition, and a film bound to inspire many of us to keep fighting the good fight.