In Even the Rain, a pair of filmmakers from Spain — Sebastián and Costa, played by Gael García Bernal and Luis Tosar — and their cast and crew have arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to shoot principal photography for their new movie about Cristóbal Colón, aka Christopher Columbus, landing in the New World.
Never mind that Bolivia is landlocked and thus awkward as a stand-in for the Bahamas. Sebastián and Costa don't care as much about the details of the Spanish conquerors themselves as they do about the way the colonizers mistreated the people they discovered. And besides, Bolivia is a cheap place to make a movie.
The film within the film, being produced on a tight budget, centers on a particularly grisly 16th-century episode in which a recalcitrant indio named Hatuey and his followers were burned at the stake en masse in what is now Cuba, for resisting the Spaniards. By that time Columbus was in fact dead, but Sebastián and Costa are again bending history in the service of art.
Coincidentally, as the two European guys begin auditioning indigenous extras, they can't help noticing there's a popular protest in the air. The local Quechua people claim that large private water companies, supported by the government, have in effect outlawed the collection of water from wells in an effort to corner the water supply and sell it back to the people at exorbitant prices. It's now illegal to even collect rainwater without permission. As it happens, one of the extras, a striking-looking man named Daniel (played by non-actor Juan Carlos Aduviri), is a leader of the increasingly violent demonstrations against the water company.
The notorious Cochabamba Water Wars are under way, pitting poor local people against multinational corporations and the World Bank. And the players bear an eerie resemblance to those in Sebastián and Costa's little movie: the trusting, relatively uncomplicated natives being brutalized by armed representatives of the king for their gold — with that robbery officially sanctioned by the church. Oh, the irony.
There's something slightly disingenuous about Even the Rain, a Spanish-French-Mexician co-prod written by Irish international screenwriter Paul Laverty (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Looking for Eric) and directed by Spanish actor-turned-filmmaker Icíar Bollaín for executive producer Pilar Benito, who had a hand in Steven Soderbergh's Che series. It's unimpeachably politically correct, of course, but a little too tidy and incurious for its own good.
Sebastián and Costa cast Daniel as Hatuey, and he's perfect for the role. Antón, the actor playing Columbus (Basque actor Karra Elejalde), is given to sarcastic political comments during the film crew's evening cocktail hour — he points out the similarities between Columbus' time and our own, in case we missed them the first time around. A couple of Spanish actors playing conscientious priests in the film within the film act as a sort of audience echo chamber as well, mostly in the nature of "What the hell is going on around here?" in reference to the bloody street fighting between the military and angry Quechuas.
García Bernal, who's almost as big in Mexico and Spain as Johnny Depp, plays a secondary part in Even the Rain behind Tosar's Costa, who makes the transition from callous movie-biz deal-maker to kind-hearted extrangero in the last quarter. Costa and Daniel have one of the movie's key exchanges. After the Spaniard has loudly argued on the phone, in English, with his money people back home about how cheap the Quechua extras work — thinking Daniel can't understand him — Daniel fixes Costa with his steeliest expression and informs him, in English, that he worked in the States long enough to know that he's being played for a chump. Ouch.
Indeed, Laverty and Bollaín frame a little too much of the action from Sebastián and Costa's "foreign exploiter" point of view, as if the audience needs help to navigate the complexities of the movie-production/water-wars/gold-conquest interconnectedness, five hundred years apart. Their progressive politics are undoubtedly in the right place, but it might have been better to pay more attention to Daniel, his family, and the other locals in their own right, rather than as catalysts of the Spaniards' change of heart.
Not everyone can be a Werner Herzog or a Terrence Malick or a Ken Loach, fewer still a B. Traven. The makers of Even the Rain dedicate it to the late historian Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States and relentless questioner of the profit motive wherever "free markets" run riot. Maybe we should let it go at that and concentrate on our own struggles. After all, aren't we and the picked-on natives of Cochabamba essentially under the same thumb?
Gregg Araki deserves some kind of award for perseverance. Like John Waters, David Lynch, or, heaven help us, Pedro Almodóvar, Araki is still making the same movies he made twenty years ago. For instance, Kaboom.
We find ourselves in Movie School-Stereotype Land, where confused university student Smith (Thomas Dekker) is wrestling with his sexual identity. He'd rather wrestle with his roommate Thor (Chris Zylka), a hunky surfer type who boffs coeds but also gets himself into absurd, dorm-fantasy homoerotic poses. Or is that just Smith's dream? Smith's best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) handles the bitchy come-back lines. She's a "vagi-tarian" who writhes around with her friend Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), but otherwise remains aloof.
Smith is so rattled by all this flesh that he becomes bed buddies with London (Juno Temple, daughter of director Julian Temple), a blond who wears a red fez. You can tell the sex is exciting by the flashing lights. But he's not convinced, especially after meeting Hunter (Jason Olive) at the nude beach. Even Smith's mother (Kelly Lynch, in terrific shape) is getting it on, with her trainer. Lynch's scenes could have been expanded into their own feature film.
People just don't talk like this. Not even the sluttiest college girl declares: "I have a test coming up and I need an orgasm." Ever since Totally F***ed Up and The Doom Generation, "eternal indie" Araki has specialized in giddy bisexual (but tilted gay) school comedies like this. Kaboom takes a half-hearted stab at horror/thriller, but the only thing it's really about is young people having sex. Could be worse. Araki could be making political allegories in Bolivia.