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Subtlety isn’t exactly a strength of Even the Rain, a Bolivia-set drama by the Spanish director Icíar Bollaín. But when that’s a film’s only weakness, it’s easy enough to overlook. It’s a movie about a movie—specifically, the parallels observed by the production crew of a controversial Christopher Columbus film, between the story they’re trying to tell and the political upheaval going on around them. If you don’t know your history, don’t worry—Bollaín and scripter Paul Laverty make you understand the fine points.
The film begins with an open casting call held by Sebastián (Gael García Bernal), a bleeding-heart director, and Costa (Luis Tosar), his tight-fisted producer. The turn-out is large, and Costa insists a majority be sent home. When one of the hopefuls, Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), causes a ruckus, holding up a flier that says everyone will get a chance, Costa sees a troublemaker—but Sebastián sees a star. He casts Daniel as a leader of the indigenous Indians whom Columbus tries to colonize, and the dailies are fantastic. Also getting rave reviews is Daniel’s young daughter, Belen (Milena Soliz). Regardless of their skill, however, Costa’s paying them just $2 a day, and brags about it in English in front of Daniel. But he doesn’t consider that Daniel, a peasant, speaks some English himself. Oops.
Meanwhile, an uprising is building over the sudden privatization of Bolivians’ water, which the extras discover when they’re prevented from collecting well water from a ditch they dug themselves. At the head of the uprising? Daniel, of course. Sebastián and Costa are especially beside themselves, worried their star will get hurt or jailed and leave them unable to finish the film. Sebastián isn’t all business, however, and expresses sympathy for the impoverished protesters during a meet-and-greet with a government official. Then the official points out that he and Costa aren’t paying their workers enough to afford water, either. Oops again. And aren’t they just like Columbus, blustering into a poor land and taking advantage of its people?
Even the Rain culls plenty of drama from this predicament, but some of the most compelling material is in the film within the film. Two scenes are particularly affecting. One involves the shot Sebastián and Costa are most worried about, the burning of Daniel’s character and other natives on crosses. In the other, the female characters are to drown their babies instead of seeing them eaten alive by their new ruler’s dogs. The actresses refuse to do it, even though they know the scene will be completed with dolls, and the filmmakers are torn between their convictions and their fidelity to the movie.
That tug proves a constant as filming goes on, and Costa’s decision to shoot in Bolivia for budgetary reasons ends up costing him more than just money. Every day, there’s a drama outside the drama, and it’s all gripping. Even the Rain has a slight misfire in its very last chapter, a switching of sides that’s a bit of a stretch in its extremity. But it still makes for great viewing. Two viewings, really.