Even the Rain, dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn, depicts the late historian’s version of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas—the ravaging, enslavement, and forced conversion of indigenous peoples. Columbus and the Spaniards—who saw themselves as imperial emissaries of Ferdinand and Isabella, soldiers of the true cross, and superior beings entitled to dominate the native peoples—are the real savages. We know from Columbus’s diaries that he doubted that the people he called “Indians” had souls. He converted them to Catholicism and used them like domestic animals.
But Even the Rain is not about Columbus. It is about the making of a film about Columbus. And contained in that narrative of fictional filmmakers is yet another, offered by a cinematographer along to document it all. Reflected against colonial history, Even the Rain shows us the contemporary privatization of the Bolivian water supply in a scheme it describes as devised by a Harvard economist and the World Bank. I imagine the friends of Larry Summers at work.
I confess I knew nothing about this story before I saw the movie, and found it hard to believe. Yet I learned afterward that the film was accurate. The public water suppliers in Bolivian cities such as Cochabamba were supposedly lazy, corrupt, and inefficient. Why, economists asked, pour good money after bad into a failed public utility? So they put the entire municipal system up for bidding by qualified foreign investors who were to modernize, improve efficiency, end corruption, and deliver better water at lower prices to more of the city’s citizens. The democratically elected government of Bolivia believed that endorsing the scheme could turn a chronic problem into a profit center and court favor with the World Bank. But the plan, like similar ones imposed on poor countries, did not work as the economic model predicted. It failed to reckon either with the limitless greed of international entrepreneurs or the needs and interests of the native Quechua people.
There were disappointments right from the start. Rather than compete, a group of foreign enterprises—including a subsidiary of the usual suspect, Bechtel—formed a consortium and offered the only bid. Unsurprisingly, the terms of the resulting agreement were problematic, and privatization in Cochabamba was fraught with difficulties that you will not find outlined in the economics textbooks. The foreign monopolists resorted to brutal and inhumane measures as they tried to protect their investments. The film portrays the demonstrations and violent uprisings that followed privatization in early 2000.
The true stories of Columbus and the privatization disaster five centuries later seem a lot to pile on the plate of a single low-budget film. Some may well find the connection a bit of a stretch. But cinematic ingenuity turns this potential weakness into a strength. The creators of Even the Rain obviously want us to see the parallel between exploitation in the name of crown and Christendom and in the name of the new capitalism. But not just as historical revelation. They want us to feel it, to engage the experience psychologically and emotionally. Thanks to the metafilm device, they succeed.
We meet the creative team arriving in the mountains of Bolivia. Viewers will have no trouble identifying with these characters. Even in Spanish (with English subtitles), they are our contemporaries, and we can recognize ourselves in them. Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) is the director and creative force. He is beautiful (though less so than in any of his earlier movies), sensitive, and idealistic. Costa (Luis Tosar), the producer, is bald, manly, and hard-nosed: a no-nonsense, bottom-line, get-things-done person. Sebastián wants to tell the world the truth about Columbus, and he wants to do it using original historical documents. Costa wants to make a box-office success. Sebastián cares; Costa does not. They are in Bolivia instead of on the shores of the Caribbean, where Columbus landed, because Costa wants to save money. In the mountains of Bolivia everything is negotiable. He can hire extras at two dollars a day and have them do manual labor as well.
In one of the film’s first scenes, the crew drive toward a village in an SUV. They are casting for actors and extras. A helicopter with a huge wooden crucifix perilously dangling from it flies overhead—an homage to Fellini and the first scenes of his unforgettable films La Strada and La Dolce Vita, where the startling juxtaposition of helicopter and crucifix gives the sacred a profane context. In Even the Rain, the cross also fits the narrative: we see it later raised from the ground and set in place—and not by a crane, but by cheap, plentiful Bolivian manpower.
I was at home in Even the Rain’s vision of political truth in a way I have seldom been while watching films.
But Columbus-in-the-mountains is a preposterous setup for a film that wants to tell us the truth. What saves it from floundering on a suspect premise is that under Costa’s control the filmmakers-within-a-film are following in Columbus’s exploitative footsteps. They are superior beings entitled to use the natives. And behind the fictional filmmakers are the actual producers in lockstep with their industry, which routinely takes advantage of the cheap labor of the third world.
When the crew arrive at the open casting, they learn the incredible power of their money. A line of people stretches out to the horizon. The filmmakers try to send most of them home, but, led by Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the Bolivians riot. Daniel is the third of the three men at the psychological heart of the film. Costa recognizes that this short, dark, hook-nosed firebrand is trouble, and the producer wants no part of him. But Sebastián is won over by Daniel’s rebellious intensity and wants him for the role of Hatuey, the Taíno Indian chief who leads the first revolt against Columbus.
As it turns out, both intuitions are right. Daniel becomes an essential part of the film, a perfect Hatuey who in real life is leading the popular revolt against the privatization scheme. Thanks to Daniel, the cast and crew become entangled in the opposition. They see firsthand the terrible injustice of privatization—the cash-poor Quechua cannot afford the high and rising prices for water. When they try to use well water, security forces block their access. Guards push unarmed Quechua mothers aside in order to preserve the corporate monopoly on supply. The confrontations lead to Daniel’s defiant rhetoric. Do they own “even the rain?” he asks. The contemporary documentary moments in the film, like this uprising, are convincing and realistic; the cheap extras fill the screen.
The few scenes in-costume for the film-within-a-film have a different directorial strategy. We are shown Sebastián and Costa organizing the Quechua extras for the shoots, and we know it will be movie-make-believe. Yet these scenes—such as the simulated burning on the cross of Hatuey and twelve of his followers, selected at random by the Spaniards to represent the twelve apostles—are even more compelling than the more veridical ones. The audience’s empathy is engaged, perhaps because we have come to know the actors and appreciate their personal connections to their roles. This is true of Daniel, the Quechua extras, and the Spanish actors, with their own conflicting feelings about their roles. Most strikingly, it is true of the actor who plays Columbus: the most humane character in this film, he is given a costume, a horse, and a wig and becomes a monster. Burning the Taínos to death on crosses convincingly enacts the Spaniards’ perverse religious arrogance in defiance of Christ’s teachings. A few “real movie” scenes also depict historical horror, mirrored in the police brutality and corporate arrogance on display in 2000 in Cochabamba.
In the mountains of Bolivia, everything is negotiable.
As the water revolt turns violent, it interrupts the making of the film. Will the filmmakers help the Quechua? When push comes to shove, Sebastián wants to change locations and finish his film; it turns out that he cares more about the people he imagines than about those who work to realize his vision. Costa emerges as the hero, the true Christian who follows the teachings of the priests who opposed Columbus’s ruthless practices and preached that the Taínos were human beings whom Christians were duty-bound to love as they loved themselves. Costa makes his way through an embattled city to save Daniel’s injured daughter and earns the rebel’s embrace.
If this sounds like too many narrative convolutions, rest assured that the editing and cinematography are so intelligent that every cut takes the audience into a deeper personal understanding.
Sadly, though, Even the Rain fizzles out in its resolution.
Whether intended or not, the scenes of the rescue have the feel of a wish-fulfilling dream sequence. Costa becomes magically invulnerable to the violence around him as he pursues his errand of mercy. And Daniel’s final words to him are those of a veteran leftist, “sometimes violence is necessary.” Both men are diminished as the film collapses into clichés. In some respects, the reality of the Cochabamba uprising is also diminished. That historic moment helped to catapult Evo Morales—an Aymara, like the Quechua, a native group—into the presidency of Bolivia on a platform of redistribution.
Nonetheless as Even the Rain unfolded, I found myself at home in its vision of political truth in a way I seldom have while watching films. The visual medium of film is so powerful that it almost always overstates. Political truths become propaganda even when one agrees with them. But in the multiple intersecting and reflecting layers of Even the Rain, I experienced the complex mixture of truth-telling, self-interested posturing, and hypocrisy that serves those who reject certitude and accept doubt as the only human truth.