A Water Fight Beyond Nerf Supersoakers Interrupts the Filming of an Epic Drama
(The truth has many enemies. The lie has many friends.)
– Frei Antonio de Montesinos/Juan
The movie-within-a-movie (or mise en abyme) is a strange beast dependent on two stories that either complement each other or fail to jibe at all. In the case of Rain, off-set drama propels the story as much as it did in successful predecessors like Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces and Vicente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful.
Early on, the obsessed screenwriter Sebastiàn (Gael Garcia Bernal) remarks, “I hope I can get through this.”
He does. Yet, he quickly loses the “bleeding heart” façade that’s in full effect at the film’s open.
The first scene is fittingly a casting call for an epic film about the “real” discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus (referred to as Cristóbal Colón in the film and played by legendary yet alcohol-dependent actor Antón).
The open casting call draws people from every small town surrounding Cochabamba, Bolivia. So many people show up that Sebastiàn and company – his foil Costa and documentarian Maria – have to turn away those at the end of line. But a future cast members, a Quechua man named Daniel, thwarts their plan by stirring up a commotion.
Daniel, who’s casted to play the martyred cacique leader Hatuey, lacks professional acting experience. Yet, we quickly discover that he has one gift that threatens the film: a knack for rallying people against the Bolivian government.
The almost useless Maria follows around Daniel and his fellow “starving Indians” (as Costa offhandedly refers to the Quechua people he casts to play as the Tainos of Hispaniola). Her aim: to make a behind-the-scenes featurette for the main film.
Following the Quechua extras allows Maria to catch more than unguarded moments off-set. She luckily follows them the day workers from the government’s water agency come to harass the villagers. In turn, the villagers chase the agents away with their fists and swing shovels as the truck pulls off.
After “greeting” the two men in the truck, their violent reaction to the mere sight of the government reps becomes clear as they explain to Maria their losing battle against the government. For the last few years, the government has pushed to privatize the wells in Bolivia by taxing villagers’ use of wells that some of them privately purchased.
Daniel and his fellow neighbors refuse to back down. And when the government agency finally padlocks the last well of freshwater in the village, tensions in Cochabamba reach their breaking point. Fearing that even rainwater collected in a pail will be outlawed next, the villagers begin mobilizing, and agitating officials with traffic-jamming demonstrations and blockades.
“You don’t understand. Water is life,” Daniel says to Costa when he bribes him to stay out of the trouble.
But Costa later sees eye to eye with Daniel and the demonstrators, even risking his life in the process. Sebastiàn, on the other hand, dismisses the protest as an annoyance (“Our film is going to last forever” while the protests will be forgotten). His modesty should have its own milk carton: it’s missing … or it never existed.
As a “nutcase” for his craft, Sebastiàn believes “the film comes first, always.” And ‘til the bitter end, he’ll harangue and coerce those who stray from his overriding goal: to see the script that he devoted years of research to brought to life. His selfishness, heightened by his inner “vampire” (i.e. his talent), allows him to see nothing but his film – making everyone expendable after they’ve done their jobs. But as a bloodied Daniel/Hatuey tells Costa after the latter bails him out, “Some thing’s are more important than your film.”
The film’s political bent does not make it unadulterated Marxist poetry (à la Gilles Pontecrevo’s La Bataille d’Alger). Furthermore, the dedication to progressive historian Howard Zinn does not make this “fictional” account more biased than most cable news channel (CNN valiantly tries to put the “c” in the centrist political fiction that politicos like to shovel.) In fact, the movie strikes a balance between revisionism versus accuracy, which is sacrificed for “bottom line” costs. Antón was simply egging on Juan/Frei Antonio Montesinos when he said the film “isn’t art. It’s pure propaganda.”
Before the credits roll, the balance shifts decidedly to the left – in favor of the villagers. The exact moment in which the balance is lost: when the mayor of Cochabamba utters the unforgivable line: “If you give the Indians an inch, they’ll drag us back to the Stone Age.”
In their struggle for yaku (Quechua for “water”) against the government, the villagers have a protest chant to counter the government’s underestimation of them: “Rifle or gun, the people will never run!” The defiance of the chant demonstrates their unbreakable resolve – much like Sebastiàn who refuses to leave Bolivia with an unfinished film.
Classic Rating: 7.5/Potential Cult Classic
Sidenote: In light of the stalled U.S. climate legislation (full overview of the climate bill’s demise) and the delayed resolution of Lago Agrio-Chevron lawsuit, a happy ending for the “green” crowd is long overdue. By modern standards, 2000’s Erin Brokovich is ancient.