Rating: ★★★★☆

What better way to remind us of some recent international history than assemble a brilliantly-acted, emotionally engaging testament to it? The release of Icíar Bollaín’s Even the Rain is timely not because it dredges up memories of the 2000 Cochabamba water protests in Bolivia, but because the dogged issue of utility privatisation is just now arising once again in the country. Bolivian President Evo Morales’ controversial nationalisation of a subsidiary power company has re-opened the 2000 discourse, and the serendipitous arrival of Bollain’s film consequently provides plenty of food for thought.

Lusi Tosar, who impressed as a vicious prison inmate in Cell 211, plays fastidious film producer Costa, travelling to Bolivia with his young, idealistic director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) to shoot a contentious picture about Christopher Columbus’ conquest. While recruiting local extras for their film, they become embroiled in the ongoing water conflict between the citizens and the state, as their principal local actor, Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), leads the revolt, much to their chagrin.

We need only look as far as recent Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire to observe how art and life can conflict, what with the controversy surrounding the quality of life of the film’s young co-stars. The grand opulence of a film production amidst a deeply impoverished locale is a simple but effective metaphor, one enhanced here by Costa’s crass keenness to exploit the starving natives as poorly-paid extras. While it might raise some questions about Bollaín’s film itself – after all, it appears to feature many local non-actors who could easily have been short-changed themselves – this is not a pic keen to bleat on the soapbox. As much as it recognises the plight of Bolivia’s downtrodden, it is also an examination of the forces acting against artists who, no matter how determined, have to make compromises in favour of the human element.

In broader terms, Costa bemoans Sebastián’s insistence that the film be spoken in Spanish, for they would receive double the budget if they had opted for English. Cutting it is, then, that soon enough we observe the crew dining on extravagant, catered meals during table readings, while the hands-on cast and crew appear to receive nothing, not even basic safety equipment when erecting a gigantic cross for the shoot. It is clear early on that Costa is the workmanlike, frugal money-minder while Sebastián is the passionate artist, but once the local issues begin to impede their progress, a value shift slowly but surely takes place.

Conveyed in a simple way for the uninitiated, we learn of the broader problems in Cochabamba while getting to know the locals, specifically actor Daniel, who rightly puts fighting for his water far ahead of any commitment to the film. Alongside him, we are introduced to Sebastián’s pragmatic assistant director Maria (Cassandra Ciangherotti) and the production’s alcoholic star Colón (Karra Elejalde), the latter of whom depicts a very distinct divide in class and character when compared to Daniel.

Though the brutal clashes of the film’s later moments in particular are thoroughly unpleasant, director Bollaín does a bang-up job of feeding us constant morsels of intrigue and even occasionally, humour. A meeting between the filmmakers and local bureaucrats is both hilarious and eye-opening; each side, limited to budget, feels that the other is equipped to address the problem of keeping the citizens happy. In the nature of any farce, nobody gets off scot-free.

Truly, it ends up being the superb performances that deliver the full emotional measure possible; Tosar’s intensity carries over from his recent prison thriller, building a character who lives in a dehumanising industry which too often puts blinders on to the real world. Though Costa’s arc might feel a little rushed in the later stages, it basically works due to both the actorly commitment, and the tension, appropriately ramped-up at the tail end; we are genuinely scared for those caught in the conflict. Bernal’s Sebastián, though more of a wet blanket, sees the young actor give his meatiest, most passionate performance in quite a few years.

Ultimately Even the Rain doesn’t get on the wrong side of political, and is instead a powerful testament to fighting from the heart for something that really matters. Persistence can prevail, albeit not without casualties, and this message is carried through with deft emotion right to the end. In a loftier sense, Bollaín also observes film’s power to change lives, how it can by mere status and appearance be appropriated as a tool of grand humility and mercy. The dramatic strain of making the Columbus film is balanced well with any sociological aspirations Bollaín might have, which is sure to keep a wider range of audiences compelled from start to finish.

Icíar Bollaín melds passionate art with profound politics in this well-conceived, brilliantly acted drama.

Even the Rain is in UK cinemas today.

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This article was first posted on May 19, 2012