Faith & Film: También la lluvia (Even the Rain)

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first friars going to the New World in 2011, this film is a strong reminder of the powerful preaching of Antonio Montestinos and the relevance of it even today. “También la lluvia (Even the Rain),” was selected as the Spanish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. It really is a film within a film so cleverly done and worth watching.

Sebastián (Gael García Bernal, famous for “The Motorcycle Diaries”) is a film director working with his friend and producer Costa (Luís Tosar) on a movie about Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Sebastián is a bit artistic and imagines a lot of the scenes in his head, while Costa is the level-headed and budget-conscious pragmatist. Sebastián cares first and foremost about Columbus’ obsession with gold, involvement with slave-trade, and punitive violence against any Indians who refused to convert to Christianity. Sebastián then opts to counter Columbus’ story with the tales of two priests — Bartolomé de las Casas (Raul Arevalo) and Antonio Montestinos (Carlos Santos) — who spoke in defense of Indians, acknowledging them as fellow human beings.

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 brilliant performance by the non-professional Juan Carlos Aduviri, an indigenous Aymara from Bolivia, who was nominated for the Best Newcomer award at Spain’s Oscars, the Goyas), a local who nearly leads a revolt against the filmmakers when they announce they don’t have time to see auditions from the 1,000 or so extras who turned up. Sebastian wants to cast Daniel in the role of Hatuey (a Taino warrior chief from the island of Hispaniola, who led an uprising against the European conquistadors in the early 16th century) in spite of the advice given by Costa, who predicts problems in their future with Daniel in their film. Of course Costa was 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. He informs us that the company that wants to privatize the water threatens to charge money for “even the rain.” 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.

Paul Laverty, the screenwriter, was working on this project for a long time—something like eight years. He first wrote a script that was a four-hour period film about Bartolomé de las Casas, but he found the story too distanced. He wanted to bring it closer to the present and add a different layer. Then he found and became fascinated with the story of the Cochabamba Water Crisis in 2000. He saw similarities between the indigenous resistance against de las Casas and the same kind of resistance against the water crisis. Again, he saw poor people against a modern army, and he loved this resistance. In the time of Bartolomé de las Casas, it was gold that caused the persecution of the indigenous, but now it was water, which has become the gold of the 21st century. Paul wanted to connect those two things and tell the story of the conquest from that point of view.

Iciar Bollain, the director, has done a marvelous job in showing us an interplay between her film and the film that Sebastián is making. It is shot and edited well and mixed with background music in such a way that you find yourself blending with 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. 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. 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 acting. Even here, without the benefit of the 16th century costumes, there is still a feeling that we are watching Columbus and not an actor. But really we’re watching Elejalde playing Antón playing Columbus.

It is not surprising 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. Daniel overhears Costa (speaking in English) on the phone with his producer exulting 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 or explained.

Sebastián thinks of himself as being in tune with the local people, but in a meeting with a local politician (the new Colon/Columbus) 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 30 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. “There are more important things than your film,” an exasperated Daniel fires back to the fixated Sebastian at one point.

It is Costa who is eventually humanized by the plight of the workers. He grows fond of Daniel’s sweet little daughter, and when local forces are brought in to subdue the demonstrations, the girl is injured, and Costa suddenly sees things in a different light. The performance by Luis Tosar as the producer is confident, sturdy and impassioned.

In the last scene, Tosar and Daniel meet for the last time. One presents a prepared gift to the other, but one wonders 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.

The movie is brave to raise the questions it does. Even if there are some historical dates that could be questioned, I encourage each and every Dominican to see this film. I have seen it thrice already. Each time I saw it, it was gripping, engaging and inspiring. The words of Montestinos’ sermon…

“I am here to let you know that I am the voice of Christ in the desert of the island. Therefore, it is imperative that you pay attention, not just any attention but the attention of all your heart and all your senses. And hear it well. This voice will be the newest that you have ever heard, the harshest and hardest, the most terrible and dangerous that you have never thought to listen to. This voice tells you that you are in mortal sin…”

…are repeated often in the film. These powerful words are so well articulated and contextualized in our globalized world of today, that they keep haunting the actors and draw our attention and will continue to do so again and again till centuries to come.

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Prakash Anthony Lohale, OP
Socius for Apostolic Life