Set against the backdrop of the anti-water-privatization protests that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, Icíar Bollaín’s sharp satire casts Gael García Bernal as a filmmaker whose critical portrait of Columbus’ Caribbean voyage is beset by external strife and internal contradictions. The improbable circumstances of filming a tropical landing high in the Andes are explained by the scant wages necessary to employ the indigenous population as extras; the dark-skinned Quechua look nothing like the natives Columbus encountered, but at least they work cheap. The budgetary imperatives are provided by producer Luis Tosar, a crass moneyman who, on a phone call to a foreign backer, brags about putting one over on the locals, never imagining that the one standing a few feet away speaks English.
In broad terms, there’s a facile irony to the juxtaposition between the production’s ends and its means, but Bollaín and screenwriter Paul Laverty, a frequent Ken Loach collaborator, don’t hang their fellow cineastes out to dry. There’s a rueful, knowing quality to the moments when Bernal’s character puts the film above all else, blinded to the fact that his pursuit jeopardizes the ideals he means to enshrine.
Although Even The Rain opens with an explicit homage to 8 1/2, the film is less interested in moviemaking as an expression of a solitary genius’ singular vision, and more in the film crew as an ad hoc society that takes on the shape of its subject. A lunchtime table-read flows seamlessly into an impromptu reenactment, as the production’s Columbus (Karra Elejalde) goes searching for gold in the waitress’ earrings. The actors’ egocentric attempts to place their characters at the center of the story stand in for the wrangling of revisionist historians, each claiming their own lock on the truth. The film grew out of Laverty’s attempt, with the help of leftist historian Howard Zinn, to film the life of Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who turned on the church and his native Spain to become an anti-slavery activist, which the actor playing him claims marked the dawn of international law.
As the strife between the Bolivian government and city’s poorest citizens worsens, the actor Bernal has chosen to incarnate the leader of a native revolt (Juan Carlos Aduviri) takes on an identical role in real life, jeopardizing his safety and the filming of a critical scene. The filmmakers remain unswerving in their conviction that their enterprise is more important: The protests will be forgotten, but their film will last forever. With a decade’s worth of hindsight, it’s clear that the inverse is true, but it’s to the film’s credit that its inescapable conclusion seems in doubt until the very end.