It’s fitting that Even the Rain should be dedicated to Howard Zinn. After all, it was the late historian and activist who, in his classic volume A People’s History of the United States, first introduced many a previously miseducated reader to Christopher Columbus’s true legacy of enslavement and genocide, a heritage central to Icíar Bollaín’s film. Among Dr. Zinn’s other signature themes, the brutal power relations inherent in both ancient empires and modern nations and the need for extra-legal rebellion to overcome those conditions are of critical importance to Even the Rain. Where Bollaín and screenwriter Paul Laverty go beyond Zinn is in implicating the practice of film production itself in the perpetuation of unequal social structures, even as they largely leave unexplored their own complicity in the process.
Set and shot in and around Cochabamba, Bolivia, the film quickly establishes three sets of overlapping power relations, all repeating on different scales the same set of conditions. As a foreign film crew descends on the impoverished city to shoot a movie about Christopher Columbus and a bishop who spoke out against the former’s treatment of the natives, the production unit recruits their cast from the local indigenous population from whose ultra-cheap labor they hope to profit. Thus, while filming a story decrying one form of colonialism, they engage in another, subtler form of the same activity. Meanwhile, town officials close down the local wells in order to protect foreign interests that aim to privatize the country’s water supply. Leading the rebellion against the privatizing interests is local resident Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), also starring in the film-within-the-film as an intractable native granted Christ-like status through the fictional movie’s symbolism. (He’s literally dubbed “Jesus” and burned on a cross.)
Even the Rain is a film that asks what moral cost is justified in the creation of a work of art. For director Sebastían (Gael García Bernal), while sympathetic to the water rebellion and vaguely displeased with the low wages offered to the extras, his film is finally more important than any ancillary concerns. For producer Costa (Luis Tosar), the bottom line is all that counts, at least for the bulk of the movie’s running time. As he exults to one of the production’s “money men” over the phone, “Two fucking dollars a day and [the locals] feel like kings.” Subtle the film is not, with Bollaín always working extra hard to make sure we don’t miss the parallels between the different modes of oppression. In one sequence, the director cuts from the natives bemoaning the difficulty of obtaining water to the cast and crew enjoying a lavish catered dinner served to them by locals. Even the unstable, alcoholic lead actor’s occasional inability to distinguish between reality and the world of the film, in which he plays Columbus, serves to highlight the film’s obvious parallelism.
But finally, the movie isn’t really interested in exploring in any great depth the moral implications of filming on location in developing countries. (One’s left wondering how much Bollaín paid her own Bolivian extras.) Instead, the film turns its attention to the escalating rebellion of the locals against the army and the corporate water interests it serves to protect. Still, even here the fight of the natives is deemed secondary to the beneficence of outsiders, as one of the (fictional) filmmakers, against all prior character indications, abruptly turns do-gooder, a move that allows Bollaín a chance to show us the war-torn Cochabamba streets as the suddenly heroic figure maneuvers his van past all obstacles. Even the Rain is not without its provocative ambiguities and it seems a genuinely well-intentioned project, but when Bollaín and Laverty rely on an oppressor suddenly coming to the aid of the oppressed as their climactic act rather than the far more heroic efforts of the local resistance fighters, one begins to wonder how closely the filmmakers have studied their Zinn after all.