Review: También la lluva (2010)
At the heart of Icían Bollaín’s También la lluva (Even the Rain), which was recently shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, lies the age-old question of the politically committed artist. Can one’s commitment be solely limited to one’s art, she asks, or should it extend to one’s life as well?
The artist is Sebastián (Gael García Bernal), an idealistic young Spaniard directing his dream project, an epic about the revolt led by Hatuey against the Spanish conquistadors in Cuba in the early 16th century. Filming is done on location, though due to budget constraints, not in the Caribbean. Instead Sebastián’s producer Costa (Luis Tosar, in a scene-stealing performance) leads him to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where life is cheap and extras can be paid next to nothing. As luck would have it, the crew arrives just as tensions between the people of Cochabamba and private entrepreneurs involved in the management of the city’s water supply are escalating (the real-life Cochabamba protests). Things get even messier when Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the local Sebastián cast as Hatuey, turns out to be one the leaders of the protests.
Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplay for También la lluva, has collaborated with Ken Loach on many a project (including The Wind That Shakes the Barley, another film about an anti-colonialist uprising), and Sebastián seems in many ways to be a sort of Spanish Ken Loach. He’s not really interested in Christopher Columbus, played in his film by grizzled veteran and alcoholic Anton (Karra Elejalde). His focus, rather, is Hatuey, as well as Dominican friars Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos, who first argued in favor of the natives. He truly believes in the power of his film to change the world–should he be able, of course, to finish it.
The opening scene has Sebastián and Costa arrive to Cochabamba only to find a long line of people waiting to be auditioned to play Taino Indians in Sebastián’s film. Costa, mindful of time constraints, argues that Sebastián should just choose the ones he likes best and send the rest home. However, after Daniel energizes the crowd with a short but rousing speech, Sebastián decides to disregard his producer’s advice and to audition everybody. It seems at once that También la lluva is set up as a triangular relationship between the compassionate and idealistic Sebastián, the cynical and pragmatic Costa, and the rebellious Daniel. Thankfully, things aren’t that simple.
The main strength of the film is Laverty’s screenplay, with its multi-dimensional characters painted in different shades of grey (which clashes with the vibrant cinematography, if you’ll pardon the pun). Sebastián doesn’t mind wasting a few hours auditioning a hundred people, and while he’s sympathetic to the people of Cochabamba and their trials, Daniel’s involvement in the protests is an endless source of anguish for him, as it threatens the completion of his film. The young filmmaker’s contradictions are best exposed when he meets the mayor of Cochabamba and tries to argue that “people who make two dollars a day can’t afford a 300% in the price of water.” “Funny,” the mayor says, “I hear that’s what you pay your extras.”
Meanwhile, Costa comes off as cold and determined to do everything for the movie to be shot for as cheap as possible. In a painful early scene, he brags on the phone to American investors about how little he is able to pay the locals, unaware that Daniel, who is standing right next to him, speaks English. Yet it is Costa, not Sebastián, who remains in contact with Daniel and the other extras day in and day out. If Sebastián lives in an ivory tower, Costa does not have that luxury.
The film within the film plays an important role as well, and Icíar Bollaín makes some interesting choices when it comes to incorporating it into the narrative. Sometimes we see Sebastián and his crew shooting, or rehearsing key scenes, like Columbus’s first stepping foot on Hispaniola. Sometimes we’re presented with the finished, fully-edited product, inserted into the main film in much the same way as in Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as if we had not so much two films as two different timelines, with the same actors playing different roles.
Of course, Daniel’s role as Hatuey echoes his role as leader of the protests in real life, but the similarities don’t end there. Juan (Raúl Arévalo) and Alberto (Carlos Santos), the actors who play Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, seem to take their roles to heart. Like Sebastián, they believe that the film they’re doing serves a social and political purpose, and aren’t averse to speaking out in favor of the people of Cochabamba. Antón repeatedly challenges them to put their money where their mouth is as he correctly senses that their dedication to the locals’ cause is one that’ll remain on an intellectual and theoretical level. When things start to get truly dangerous, Juan and Alberto aren’t exactly standing on the front lines.
Not that Laverty and Bollaín judge them too harshly. Their point is to show just how difficult the decisions those characters have to face are, not to award brownie points. Juan and Alberto are far away from home and facing a dangerous situation that doesn’t impact them directly. Most of us would react the exact same way they do. That they don’t rise up to the challenge and become heroes doesn’t make them cowards. It just makes those who do all the more heroic.