I've just seen Spanish director Iciar Bollain's remarkable También la Lluvia (Even the Rain). Some critics have compared it to Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, with its theme of monomaniacal obsession and vainglory in a Latin American context. But Even the Rain is far more textured and more political film.
The screenplay was written by Paul Laverty, who wrote the script for Ken Loach's Spanish Civil War film Land and Freedom. Even the Rain also deals with Spanish history; its underlying intention is to trace the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, from the Spanish conquistadores to the present - and the violence and resistance that has also accompanied that process.
These are big themes, and Even the Rain explores them brilliantly and imaginatively. It tells the story of idealistic director Sebastián (brilliantly played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who comes to Bolivia in 2000 to shoot a film about Christopher Columbus. Sebastián has worthy ambitions; he wants to make a film denouncing the greed of Columbus and the conquistadores and their treatment of the Indian population.
He also also intends to celebrate the work of Antonio de Montesinos, the sixteenth century Dominican friar whose preachings against the depredations of the conquistadores were crucial to the emergence of Bartolomé de las Casas as the most influential clerical critic of the brutal exploitation of the Indians of the Americas by his compatriots.
But there are contradictions in Sebastián's politics. He and his more calculating producer Costa have chosen Bolivia because of its large indigenous population and also because it's a cheap place to make films. Their arrival coincides with the outbreak of the April 2000 uprising against water privatisations, when peasants and workers engaged in daily clashes with the Bolivian army and police.
One of Sebastián's extras is Daniel, a young mestizo worker, whose strikingly 'Indian' look lands him a key role as the Indian chief Hutuey, crucified for leading resistance against the conquistadores. Daniel is also one of the leaders of the water protests, and as the shooting unfolds it becomes increasingly difficult for him - and also for Sebastián and Costa - to reconcile these two roles.
Initially Sebastián is sympathetic towards the water protests and Indian rights in general - regardless of the fact that he is using Indian extras in order to keep his production costs down - but as the water protests become more violent and Cochabamba becomes a battleground, his commitment to his art becomes a Quixotic obsession which overrides any other considerations, and which transforms his film into another resource, like gold and water, to be extracted from the local population and exported to the West.
If all this sounds a little contrived and schematic - it really isn't. As a writer, Laverty has never been afraid to bring even the most complex and seemingly distant historical episodes to the attention of a contemporary cinema audience. One of the best scenes in Land and Freedom is the ten minute sequence in which local peasants - all played by amateur actors - argue over the minutiae of land reform during the Spanish Civil War.
Even the Rain contains similar moments that many writers and directors would generally avoid, but which are strikingly effective. In one scene, Sebastián's cast engage in a heated debate over whether Bartolomé de Las Casas was a 'critic of empire' or an advocate of imperialism who supported slavery. In another, the jaded and boozy actor who plays Columbus asks Costa to listen as he reads out one of Columbus' actual letters to Ferdinand and Isabella.
This constant interplay between past and present is brilliantly realised by Bollain's expert direction, and a narrative structure and mise-en-scène that combines actual scenes from Sebastian's Columbus epic with Brechtian distancing techniques, such as the scene where the actors rehearse a scene from the film in the gardens of a hotel, watched by Bolivian Indian hotel staff.
At one point in the scene the actor who plays Columbus towers over the female Indian hotel worker and barks at her to find him gold, before snatching one of her gold earrings. In another scene, Sebastián tries to film a group of Indians drowning their babies rather than surrender them to the conquistadores, only to find to his frustration that his female Indian extras refuse to do it - no matter how hard he tries to convince them that the scene is 'not real.'
On one level, Even the Rain belongs to the mini-genre of 'films about making films', such as The Stuntman and Truffaut's Day for Night, but it is never self-referential or tricksy. Rather than a film about film-making per se, it's a meditation on the political contradictions of cinema, on the tension between artistic endeavour and political activism, on the continuity between old and new forms of imperialism.
All of which makes for a haunting and outstanding piece of political cinema, and an essential film for anyone who believes that cinema should have something more to offer audiences than entertainment.