Juan Carlos Aduviri in Even the Rain

Mary Poppins taught us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Tambien la lluvia (Even the Rain), a new Spanish film opening at the Shattuck Cinemas this Friday, February 18, features its own digestive aid: a tiny bottle of water. It arrives late in the game and doesn’t exactly transform the film from angry political polemic to feel-good movie of the year, but it will make it a bit more palatable for viewers in need of a happy ending.

Directed by Iciar Bollain, whose 2003 feature Te doy mis ojos (Take My Eyes) examined the literally tortuous relationship between a woman and her abusive husband, Even the Rain is similarly provocative stuff. The film reunites Bollain with Take My Eyes star Luis Tovar, here cast as Costa, a film mogul whose current production is an historical drama about the conquest and enslavement of indigenous South Americans by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Empire.

Costa is a cold-blooded realist: all he cares about is completing the film on time and for as little money as possible. Sebastian (Gael Garcia Bernal), the film within a film’s director, is an idealist: he hopes to create something that will be important both politically and artistically. The two have brought their crew to Cochabamba, an Andean city run by a racist mayor who tells them, “If we give one inch, the Indians will drag us back to the stone age.” It seems that the centuries old struggle between Anglos and Indians hasn’t quite ended yet.

Costa and Sebastian need indigenous workers and actors, and notice an outspoken native named Daniel (Juan Carlos Iduviri) at an over-subscribed casting call. They cast Daniel and his teenage daughter Belen (Milena Soliz) in important roles, but soon discover that their new star is also a leader in the indigenous people’s battle against Aguas de Bolivia, a multinational that holds a monopoly on the local water supply. Daniel’s activism, and the effect it has on the completion of the film within a film, becomes the primary focus of Even the Rain, whilst Costa’s hasty third act conversion — in which he realizes that people sometimes do come before profit — suggests that even the worst of us can rise to the occasion.

Even the Rain’s viewers are likely to fall into two camps. Some will consider the film deeply cynical and pessimistic, and will be tempted to leave early. Indeed, this happened at the screening I attended: a woman loudly announced “I don’t think I like this” and left 10 minutes later during a troubling scene involving infanticide. Then there are those who will be left unsatisfied by its modestly upbeat finale, which, though believable, is artistically unsatisfying and not in congruence with what has gone before it. (Ironically, the viewers most likely to walk out are going to be the ones most in sympathy with Even the Rain’s conclusion.)

Director Bollain and screenwriter (and frequent Ken Loach collaborator) Paul Laverty eagerly examine the “art versus commerce” dichotomy through the film within a film device: Sebastian is producing what he thinks will be important art, whilst Costa is counting the pennies and wishes they were filming in English; Daniel is determined to keep up the fight against the water company even if it means the film won’t be finished, a possibility that terrifies Sebastian and Costa; Costa is perfectly happy to pay native crew and extras starvation wages as long as it means the film comes in on schedule.

Bollain is surely aware that Even the Rain will be judged by the same standards. It is impossible to avoid the obvious questions: when shall the exploitation of native peoples end? Does this film help or hinder that exploitation? Is it poverty porn for guilty liberals? For Costa and Sebastian, the film within a film is a means to an end: a source of wealth, fame, and recognition. For Daniel and his people, it is a raw reminder of injustices past and present. One wonders how Tosar, Bernal, and Iduviri perceive their roles in this film.

There is much here to savor, including scenes reminiscent of the best of Werner Herzog and Costa-Gavras, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, and Jorge Sanjines’ Yawar Maliku (Blood of the Condor). There is a superb performance by Karra Elejalde as Anton, the hard-drinking actor playing Christopher Columbus in the film within a film, and Laverty (who, I suspect, “appears” in an off-screen cameo as one of Costas’ investors) bravely navigates some tricky narrative shoals. I do think seeing Even the Rain is a worthwhile endeavor: just don’t be surprised if you don’t enjoy it very much.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...