March 21, 2011
New World In My View
by Hasan Altaf
Lately it seems we have revolution on the brain, so in that sense, Icíar Bollaín’s new film, También la lluvia (Even the Rain), came out in the US at the perfect moment. The context is different, the struggle and the outcomes are different, the actors and powers are different, but those differences only serve to bring into relief the similarities: It was impossible to watch the movie, set during the water riots in Cochabamba in 2000, and not think of the revolutions blooming today across other parts of the world.
The luck of timing was, I imagine, a surprise for the filmmakers, but the movie wears this accidental topicality lightly, perhaps because it has its own built-in reference point, a central conceit that is already strong. The water riots are not, at first, the central subject of Bollaín’s film – También la lluvia begins by being about a crew of Spaniards, led by an earnest, idealistic director named Sebastián (Gael García Bernal), making a movie about the first arrival of Columbus in the Americas, and Cochabamba is a cheap, convenient backdrop, full of Quechuas who will, for two dollars a day, play Taínos, much to the delight of Sebastián’s cost-cutting producer, Costa (Luis Tosar). The reality intrudes on Bollaín’s movie as it does on the movie within – Cochabamba becomes, suddenly, a city instead of a backdrop, and the “native extras” turn into stars of a very different drama.
If someone had described the movie to me beforehand, I would have avoided it. The juxtaposition of Columbus and the water riots seems, academically, too pat and perfect, too easy, almost simple-minded. Rapacious conquistadores, rapacious conglomerates; the same people suffering then and now; the obvious dichotomy of Davids and Goliaths – it’s a familiar paradigm, and one that tends to suffocate movies. (Although it did get used to good effect in Eduardo Galeano's Las venas abiertas de América latina, but that was a completely different project.) The great success of También la lluvia, in my view, is that it manages to use this conceit and rise above it - and so although I have described the movie in this way, I recommend highly that you go see it.
Bollaín sneaks “the issue” in from the back end: At the beginning of the movie, we identify with the filmmakers, particularly good-guy Sebastián, who has been dreaming of making this film for years. The dynamic between him and Costa seems to give us all we need, dramatically – a good guy and a bad guy, someone to root for, someone whose downfall to await. That would be the easy way to do it. As the movie progresses, and the reality of the water riots intrudes, it becomes clear that for all his good intentions, there is to Sebastían something of the conquistador, too: There is to the arrogance of the artist something of the colonizer. (In Jonathan Larson’s Rent, at one point a squeegee woman sings to the filmmaker Mark that “My life’s not for you to make a name for yourself on” – every time Sebastián asked the world to stop so he could get his film made, I heard that line.)
Bollaín plays with our sympathies throughout the movie, not giving us any easy villains or easy heroes. The mayor of Cochabamba would have been an obvious target, but she shows us to him as not that different from Sebastián (they’re both on tight budgets). The actors playing Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan de Montesinos, the two priests who were among the first in the New World to advocate for the natives, prove to be less than heroically sympathetic to the present-day Bolivians’ situation – and we can’t blame them or fault them for it. Cochabamba is exploding, and they’re afraid; it’s not cowardice, but it’s hardly the heroism that, in a simpler movie, would have been expected from men dressed as las Casas and Montesinos.
For me, one of the most compelling characters was the self-absorbed alcoholic playing the force of darkness for Sebastián’s movie, Christopher Columbus (the actor, played by Karra Elejalde, also offers an excellent explanation for drinking: “Because I am very, very, very… thirsty”). He starts off a joke, arrogant and unlikable, not interested, as the rest of the cast is, in learning the Quechua words for wine and water. But in the end, he’s the one who stays. And it’s not because he’s a hero: It’s because he has nothing to go back to.
In a standard revolution! movie, our feelings would be most uncomplicated for Daniel, the actor cast as Hatuey (played by Juan Carlos Aduviri): He would be our hero. He’s still heroic, still (to use one of the movie’s memorable lines, which thankfully it avoids turning into a catchphrase) the vox clamantis in deserto, but it’s a complicated heroism, heroism with a cost, heroism with, perhaps, a flaw, like Herakles after his labors. The movie forces us to recognize what is in a sense Daniel’s single-mindedness, what might even be called his selfishness. This is perhaps a necessary characteristic, and whether his fight is valid or not isn’t really the issue, but most movies of this kind would not let the viewers see that.
In the end, what Bollaín and the actors accomplished in También la lluvia is to show us people as individuals, not representatives (of good, or evil, or victim, or colonizer, or hero), and to show us everyone’s own personal moral calculus. It was hard, in the end, to really judge anyone. Sebastián was selfish, but also earnest and sympathetic; Daniel was single-minded, brave, willing to put a great deal at risk, willing to do whatever was necessary to be able to continue doing something he believed in; Costa, who started out completely unsympathetic, gave us all the growth we could have wished for. Sebastián’s movie, from what we see of it, is fairly straightforward and simple. Bollaín’s is not, and is better for it. She resists neat endings and answers – at the end of the movie, a priest walks through a destroyed Cochabamba, ringing a bell and vox-clamantis-ing that the water is yours, but we don’t see the real aftermath. Which is the thing about revolutions: What comes afterward is not utopia, and whether it is worse or better, it will have its own problems, its own struggles. Revolution is razing, ground clearing; what comes after is the building.
Bollaín gives us here the complications of revolution and also the complications, the internal pressures, of art, of attempting to understand and to do good, which is never the neutral act we would like it to be. The revolutions of this spring have not yet, in this large-scale way, come into novels or movies, but También la lluvia offers what seems to me a new way to think about them, a more complicated way, but one that seems ultimately more human and more compelling.
Posted by Hasan Altaf at 12:15 AM | Permalink