Wednesday, January 19, 2011

También la lluvia (Even the Rain) Movie Review: Self Importance Masquerading as Greatness

Juan Carlos Aduviri as Daniel playing Hatuey. The specter of Christianity is approaching from behind.
*As a matter of full disclosure I should point out that I saw this film in the original Spanish without subtitles. While my Spanish is good enough to get the majority of the dialogue, there were certainly subtleties of character that were lost on me, as well as at least one key scene of dialogue between the two principals, Sebastián and Costa. I have some suspicions about certain character elements, but as I can’t be certain I will avoid making reference to anything unless I feel confident I understood it all.

También la lluvia (Even the Rain), Spain's entry this year to the AMPAS for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, starts out so well, coming close to brilliance in the way it toys with the concept of life imitating art imitating life, but then degrades itself in the third act by falling in love with its own self-importance and tossing in a melodramatic plot turn designed solely to bring about a contrived denouement. It made me so angry because the combination of Paul Laverty’s screenplay and Icíar Bollaín’s direction worked so well together until a particular moment (more on that later) when they completely lost my respect.

Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) is a film director working his friend and producer Costa (Luís Tosar) on movie about Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Sebastián is a bit of an artistic prima donna while Costa is the level-headed and budget conscious pragmatist. When they arrive on location in Bolivia to make casting decisions for the roles of the natives (or Indians as they were mislabeled at the time), Sebastian likes the fire he sees in Daniel (a blistering performance by the non-professional Juan Carlos Aduviri), a local who nearly leads a revolt against the filmmakers when they announce they don’t have time to see auditions from the thousand or so extras who turned up. He wants to cast Daniel in the role of Hatuey, the warrior who led an uprising against the European conquistadors, against the advice of Costa, who predicts problems in their future with Daniel in their film.

Of course Costa is right. They have arrived in Bolivia just in time for the privatization of the water supply, which led to several violent protests in the Spring of 2000. It turns out Daniel is one of the most outspoken opponents of the transition and a leader in the protests. This sets up a sort of David and Goliath parallel that mirrors the conflict between the natives and the Europeans, again with the Indians going up against a European power. Only this time it’s a corporation instead of soldiers. And instead of the fight being over gold and other riches of the lands of Latin America, it’s a fight over water, that most basic necessity of human society.

Bollain establishes early on a fascinating interplay between her film and the film that Sebastián is making. It is shot and edited in such a way that you find yourself blending characters in También la lluvia with the characters they play in Sebastián’s film to the point that you might even be confused about what story you’re actually watching. Unlike most films that feature a film within a film, they rarely show the crew working. We see Sebastián’s film as if it were a finished product being shown to us. So when we see Daniel as Hatuey, we are seeing both characters simultaneously. It is a striking and effective fusion and an almost perfect depiction of the multi-level movie making philosophy that Christopher Nolan tried to achieve in Inception.

The same effect is also achieved rather unexpectedly during a script read-through when Antón (Karra Elejalde), the actor playing Columbus, gets lost in his character while employing a bit of Method acting. Even here, without the benefit of the sixteenth century costumes, there is still a feeling that we are watching Columbus and not an actor. But really we’re watching Elejald playing Antón playing Columbus. How’s that for a dream within a dream?

Screenwriter Paul Laverty has collaborated for the last dozen or so years with the British director Ken Loach, who specializes in stories of the working class with a heavy emphasis on socialism and class warfare as effective methods of achieving equality for everyone. So it should come as no surprise that También la lluvia heavily favors the locals (who are predominantly descendants of the Indians whose culture and way of life were forever altered by the arrival of the Europeans) at the expense of both government officials and the film makers who are (at least initially) depicted as exploiting them for financial benefit.

As in many of Loach’s films, the points are often made with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Daniel overhears Costa (speaking in English) on the phone with his producer gloating over the fact that the extras are happy to work for only two dollars a day. Daniel understands him and says, “I think I know this story already,” alluding to the European conquerors who exploited his ancestors. This is the kind of dialogue that hardly needs to be spoken. The implication is there so making it explicit is little more than pandering.

Sebastián thinks of himself as being in tune with the local people, but in a meeting with a local politician who tries explaining the reasoning behind the privatization of the water supply and the subsequent rate increases that would make water unaffordable to the working class, he asks how they expect laborers earning two dollars a day to afford a thirty percent increase in their water bill. The politician responds by pointing out that they, the film makers, aren’t paying them any better.

Sebastián has such a high concept of his film that he will get it made at all costs. He thinks it is more important than the chaos and destruction around them as the city begins to erupt in violent protest: “This is temporary, but my film will last forever,” he says to Costa. Maybe every artist sees their work in that light to some degree, but hearing it said out loud just makes Sebastián sound sad and out of touch with reality. That’s the irony, of course – that he is there to make a film about the atrocities committed against the forebears of the very people whose plight he is ignoring in the present.

Where the film started to lose me was during the Big Symbolic Moment when the film’s extras, still dressed in their makeup and costumes as indigenous peoples, attack and maul a police vehicle to prevent the arrest of Daniel. It was embarrassingly uncomfortable to watch characters devolve into savagery so that Bollaín can make a point. It’s hardly fitting with their character and reeks of the suggestion that the Indians simply resort to savage behavior in a time of crisis.

From that point it’s mostly downhill as Bollaín falls so in love with herself as an artist and with the important message of her movie that she could be mistaken for Sebastián himself. She continues in this manner until a final resolution brought about by a shamelessly manufactured bit of drama. It was just horrifying to watch a film that started out on such strong footing fall apart in the final act.

One final note: In the last scene, two characters meet for the last time. One presents a prepared gift to the other, but ask yourself how either one of them knew the other would be in that place at that time. It’s an absurd contrivance to help Costa achieve catharsis and serves as a painful reminder of the depths to which the story sinks in its desperate search for an ending that befits its promising beginning.

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