By Robert Koehler
Even the Rain is a Ken Loach film directed by Iciar Bollain. Even more, it’s a film by Paul Laverty, Loach’s regular screenwriter. The film is a useful object in this regard: By watching Even the Rain (in Palm Springs because of its status as Spain’s foreign language Oscar submission), it’s clearer than ever that all of Loach’s recent films written by Laverty (up to and including Route Irish, one of the worst films ever to screen in a Cannes competition) are less films by Loach than films by Laverty. The same Laverty formula in the film directed by Loach applies to this film directed by Bollain, who has clearly given herself over to the writer and his John Sayles-like taste for transmitting political causes through dramatic means.
Laverty adheres to a standard British mode of leftist television drama, in which individual characters stand in for various points on the political spectrum from retrograde neanderthal to Communist, and shades in between. Often, a Laverty character who begins as a reactionary conservative is reformed through the story process, frequently by a crisis of conscience or a moral dilemma, into a humane person of the people, their eyes open to the struggles of the oppressed. Now, it can be said that Laverty learned from Loach’s earlier films written by such similarly inclined writers as Jim Allen, and to be sure, Bollain herself co-starred in Loach’s and Allen’s Land and Freedom, which exerts a distinct influence on Even the Rain. (Laverty has been Loach’s writer-partner since just after Land and Freedom, starting with Carla’s Song in 1996.)
The Laverty formula works this way in Even the Rain: Gael Garcia Bernal plays a Spanish director readying to shoot a low-budget epic about Columbus’ brutal occupation of indigenous land and resources during his first landing in the New World, but finds that the indigenous cast members are themselves involved in a contemporary subjugation by the Bolivian state, which has privatized all water delivery services and denied them access to free and safe water. Things come to a head when the indigenous actor (Juan Carlos Aduviri), playing the pivotal role of the most rebellious figure to Columbus’ authority, also leads the movement to take back indigenous water rights in the streets of La Paz. Thus, history is repeating itself, not as farce, but again, as tragedy, with the Spanish film crew as interlopers in their Santa Maria-sized production landing in territory they know nothing about. (The one good joke about this, muffed in the consistently humorless Laverty storytelling, is that the producer, played by Luis Tosar, sought Bolivia as a location to substitute for the authentic Dominican Republic setting purely because the Bolivian extras are cheaper.)
Bernal is reduced to reacting in disbelief to seeing his film being hijacked by current political events, and the film actually belongs to Tosar and Aduviri, who initially represent opposite poles finally brought together by circumstances. The producer is a purely mendacious capitalist, interested only in finding the cheapest solution regardless of safety or artistic concerns. (It’s fair to wonder why such a flagrant right-winger would even be interested in making a film highly critical of Spain’s colonialist empire, but that kind of contradiction can’t be allowed to impede upon Laverty’s cinematic lecture.) From first identifying Aduviri’s activist as a troublemaker, the producer proceeds to have a moral dilemma in which he must either flee with his crew from the danger of pitched battles in the city streets, or help save Aduviri’s daughter, who has also played a role in the film. Tovar opts for the courageous latter option, sending him to the other side where the have-nots live, and thus crushing his old politics. This is the classic Laverty hero (Bernal’s director, on the other hand, is allowed to exit the film with little more than a whimper), a man of reaction become a man of action, changing if not greater events, than his own social conscience.
Such a programmatic cinema is itself conservative, as the past fifteen years of Loach-Laverty films have shown, and reinforced by seeing a Laverty story handled by a director other than Loach. (A far better director, incidentally.) Bollain hardly asserts her own sensibility on the material; the only interesting cinema element is the depiction of the film-within-the-film directed by Bernal as being a completely cut work that often appears staged by Terrence Malick. From the long grass through which the indigenous people roam and hide, to the floating Steadicam moves up and down hillsides, the presence of European soldiers and native tribes–all of it directly quotes from Malick’s The Thin Red Line and The New World. (An opening gambit also quotes from Fellini’s opening sequence in La dolce vita, with a cross between flown by copter for a location.)
What we are seeing is the footage as shot by Bernal’s character, although Even the Rain dispenses with nearly all behind-the-scenes production detail, so that we never see an editing room, and rarely cameras, and only once or twice a screening room to show rushes. Yet the footage we see isn’t rough-cut material, but fully finished for theatrical release; a physical impossibility during the course of a production schedule on location. This is strange stuff which Bollain doesn’t seem to either acknowledge or want to question, apparently assuming that a film-savvy audience will buy the illusory trick. Then again, the film is a welter of contradictions, roughly hewn ideas packaged as telegraphed messages, and an example of outsiders coming to Latin America to make a film and failing to examine their own position inside history–even though this is precisely the central concept of Even the Rain. History is more complicated than programmatic screenwriting can manage.