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'Even the Rain' filmmakers explore Latin American politics across the centuries

Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:00 PM

Set during Bolivia's 2000 "water war" and scripted by leftist writer Paul Laverty, "Even the Rain" is indisputably a political film.

Producer Juan Gordon doesn't deny that, but he emphasizes that the movie, opening in the Washington area Friday, is also an adventure tale. "Two guys travel to Latin America to try to complete a dream, and the realities of the world affect that adventure. By showing their personal involvement, you open a window to what's happening in Latin America. But without preaching," he says.

The guys' "adventure'' is filmmaking itself. The two central characters, played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar, go to Bolivia to make a movie about the era 500 years ago when a large chunk of the New World was becoming "Latin" America. One of the characters in this film-within-a-film is Christopher Columbus. He's not the hero.

That's to be expected, since the project began as part of a series that Laverty, a Scottish writer who lives in Madrid, developed with populist American historian Howard Zinn (who died last year). Begun as a straight period drama, the movie evolved into a multilayered story featuring director Sebastian (Garcia Bernal) and producer Costa (Tosar).

They're making a historical movie to publicize the views of Bartolome de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos, two Columbus contemporaries who condemned the explorer's treatment of indigenous Americans. But Sebastian and Costa are slow to see how Bolivian protests against water privatization relate to the theme of their own project. In American film circles, this sort of self-referential saga is sometimes called "meta."

"This film is very difficult to pitch," producer Gordon says. "It is quite complex. It talks to you on different levels."

De las Casas and his 500-year-old critique of Columbus are reasonably well known in Spain, says Iciar Bollain, director of "Even the Rain." But that hasn't diminished the reputation of Columbus - known in Spain as Cristobal Colon. "We grew up on Colon," she says. "There are squares and statues dedicated to Colon. He's considered the great captain."

Gordon agrees that "we tend to see only one side of Columbus in Spain. If you talk to Latin American teachers and students, they will tell you a completely different story."

In spotlighting Columbus's 15th-century critics, the fictional Sebastian and Costa mean well, yet their project has a streak of latter-day colonialism: They choose Bolivia because it's Latin America's poorest country, and thus the cheapest place to film.

Instead of an army of $2-a-day extras, however, the filmmakers find an uprising: The city of Cochabamba is in near-unanimous revolt against a World Bank-backed plan to privatize the local water supply, right down to the contents of peasants' rain barrels.

This 2000 rebellion really happened, and Bollain and Gordon - another team of Spanish filmmakers on a limited budget - incorporated archival footage of rioting into "Even the Rain." They also made the most of less-widespread unrest that occurred a decade later, while they were filming.

"We had to shoot a scene where there were hundreds of demonstrators protesting against the authorities," Gordon recalls. "They called me and said, 'There might be a problem, because they've scheduled a demonstration against the mayor.' So we put together our extras with the real demonstrators. It looks fantastic onscreen. The only thing we couldn't do was bring in the police and tanks we had hired for the scene - just in case the real demonstrators thought it was the real police attacking them."

Riot scenes, let alone tanks, are new to Bollain, an actress-director whose previous movies had been more intimate. "At first, I was a bit overwhelmed by the size of the film," she says. "And I had never worked overseas."

But Bollain was well acquainted with the long evolution of Laverty's screenplay. "Paul and I are a couple," she says, "so I knew the script." She took the project after the original director, Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, decided to do "Biutiful" instead. (Both movies were nominated for the foreign film Oscar by their respective countries, but only "Biutiful'' made the final five.)

Bollain managed to shoot the movie in an impressively speedy 45 days, in part because of extensive rehearsing before the main cast arrived in Colombia. (Most of the Bolivian roles are played by nonprofessionals.) Some of the scenes the director shot in Bolivia actually show rehearsals, since the film-within-the-film is represented in various forms: as informal line readings around a table, as full-costume run-throughs, as scenes being filmed or as rushes watched by the cast.

The effect, devised by Laverty, is to weave past and present together tightly. The other important thing, Bollain says, is to assure that "the audience doesn't lose touch with the characters" as the focus shifts among the movie crew, Columbus and his detractors, and the water demonstrators.

The character who draws the viewer through the story is Costa, the producer. Initially all business, he ultimately intervenes to help members of a local family who have worked on the movie. "Today in Europe, and I think in the U.S. as well, people don't necessarily go to see political cinema," Gordon says. "They might even think they don't want to be bored with serious stuff. But I think if you tell a story from a personal point of view, you hook people's interest."

Asked to compare himself to Costa, Gordon laughs. "Well, I'm meaner. . . .

"It's a very tough job. I don't tend to use money as a way to convince people during extreme situations, as Costa does many times. But I think he's quite an interesting character, because he changes how he sees his job."

"Even the Rain" (104 minutes, unrated) opens Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema in Washington.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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