Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spanish Guilt: Even the Rain

Whether from Hollywood or Spain, movie people can be counted on for hypocrisy and pretension. The indigenous population of Bolivia immediately learns this when a Spanish crew arrives to film a historical epic on the cheap in Iciar Bollain’s didactic yet strangely engaging Even the Rain (trailer here), Spain’s shortlisted official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Envisioning a searing indictment of colonial exploitation, Sebastián’s politicized biopic will basically be like every other Christopher Columbus film, except it will be produced on a shoestring budget. To stretch their funds, his producer Costa arranged to shoot in Bolivia, where the indigenous extras will earn only two dollars a day. The obvious irony is largely, but not entirely lost on the cast and crew.

Contrary to Costa’s better judgment, the director casts Daniel, a local leader of the restive indigenous proletariat in a critical supporting role in the film. Much to the producer’s alarm, the uprising of Sebastián’s film-in-progress increasingly parallels the burgeoning 2000 Cochabamba protests against the foreign-owned water utility, which charges exorbitant rates while supposedly even prohibiting locals from collecting rain water.

Never subtle, Rain tips its hand right away with a dedication to leftist pop “historian” Howard Zinn. Greed is bad we are told in no uncertain terms. (The fact that Cochabamba’s access to water is arguably worse under the Morales regime than before the 2000 demonstrations is a mere detail not worth mentioning.) Yet, the film’s fervor and sprawling messiness turn out to be considerable virtues.

In fact, the heroes of Sebastián’s prospective film are Bartolome de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos, early critics of Spanish brutality, who also happened to be Catholic priests. Screenwriter Paul Laverty (a frequent collaborator with Ken Loach, which also says quite a bit) captures the radical impulse to savage well-intentioned liberalism for lack of ideological purity, personified unlikely enough by the production’s embittered (and often drunk) star Antón. Yet, perhaps Rain’s greatest irony is that it is not Sebastian, the passionate artist, who has an awakening of conscience, but Costa, the money man (a rare display of screen love for producers).

Bollain has talent for staging big scenes, like riots and the arresting sight of Sebastián’s massive cross winging its way through the Andes via chopper. She also allows the film-within-the-film to intrude on the action in intriguing ways. However, it is Luis Tosar who truly powers Rain as Costa. Viscerally intense and realistically contradictory, he blows his more internationally renowned co-star off the screen.

Though perfectly fine, Gael García Bernal’s Sebastián is not unlike the driven directors seen in other movie-making dramas. However, Karra Elejalde steals nearly each of his scenes as the profoundly cynical Antón. Just like his character, he demonstrates a flair for barbed dialogue. Bollain also elicits some rather remarkable performances from her nonprofessional Bolivian cast, including memorable turns from Juan Carlos Aduviri and Milena Soliz, as Daniel and his daughter Belén, respectively.

Rain is the best in-your-face leftist film since Paolo Sorrentino’s bravura Il Divo. Though shortlisted, Oscar somehow passed over Bollain’s film when the nominations were announced. Frankly, it is a better film, political warts-and-all, than several of the final nominees. Absolutely worth seeing as film (but not necessarily as civics), Rain opens this Friday (2/18) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.