"Even the Rain" bravely calls into question its own existence.

By asking whether it’s possible to make a feature film about poverty and remain morally consistent, “Even the Rain” bravely calls into question its own existence. A powerful, richly layered indictment of the plight of Latin America’s dispossessed that cunningly parallels the Spanish conquest of the Americas with the 20th-century spread of capitalism, Iciar Bollain’s fifth feature is her most ambitious and best, driving its big ideas home through a tightly knit Paul Laverty script that only falters over the final reel. Offshore sales are guaranteed, though mainstream auds might find the pic’s moral convictions too preachy.

The thought-provoking opening scene features an immense wooden cross being helicoptered into the Bolivian highlands for the shoot of a revisionist drama about the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Hard-nosed producer Costa (Luis Tosar), director Sebastian (Gael Garcia Bernal) and their team, including actors Anton (Karra Elejalde), Alberto (Carlos Santos) and Alberto (Raul Arevalo) find hundreds of locals — far more than they need — lined up for roles as extras. Costa instructs Sebastian to cut the line at the number he needs and send the rest away, but Sebastian insists on meeting them all individually. Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the extra who has raised his voice in protest over Costa’s attempt to limit the number of extras, is chosen to play Hatuey, a Taino chief who led a rebellion against the Spanish.

Most of pic deals with the difficulties — moral rather than financial — relating to the shoot, with perspectives shifting to include lengthy scenes from the film being shot and a simultaneous docu about the shoot itself. It quickly becomes clear that Columbus’ interest in grabbing much as gold as possible is being played out, five centuries later, by Costa’s (the name fits) penny-pinching: They are in Bolivia precisely because extras can be hired here more cheaply than anywhere else.

Simultaneously with the shoot, the locals, led by Daniel, are fighting the Bolivian government’s privatization of the water supply, a real-life episode that Laverty smoothly incorporates.

Daniel overhears a phone conversation between Costa and the film’s financier in which the producer gloats that two dollars a day means these people live like kings. Speaking a little English (perhaps too conveniently for the plot), he challenges Costa, and the balance of power between the men starts to shift; having hired Daniel for a major role, Costa now risks losing him. The faceoffs between Costa and Daniel are the pic’s moral heart, and are superbly written and played.

Tosar is an imposing screen presence, but struggles to make Costa’s swift transformation from mercenary capitalist convincing. The final scenes are his, but they feel like a late attempt to shoehorn in a conventional feel-good strand about the triumph of good over evil. Though it’s uplifting, it feels simplistic given the rich moral ambiguities that have preceded it.

Characters are defined by their political perspectives, and accordingly the thesps struggle to bring nuance to their perfs; though Elejalde is riveting as the hard-drinking, shambolic and terminally cynical Anton and as Columbus, Bernal as the frustrated idealist Sebastian adds little to the role once he has been set up. Aduviri does good work as the quietly determined, haunted-looking Daniel, aware that maintaining an enigmatic silence is the best policy.

The script is far stronger when focusing on the collective perspective rather than one-on-one politics.

The historical film-within-film sequences are superbly done, with fine attention to period detail: Ironically, it’s when they are wearing period costume that the characters are most fully alive onscreen. Scenes of street conflict likewise have the raw power of documentary, and indeed incorporate footage from the 2000 Cochabamba water riots.

Alberto Iglesias’ rich, orchestral score features classic fare with indigenous hues, but is slightly overused. Alex Catalan’s lensing makes the most of the mountain scenery but is otherwise unobtrusive.

Pic features some Quechua language and is dedicated to Howard Zinn, the socialist writer who died earlier this year.

Even the Rain

Spain-France-Mexico

Production

A Morena Films, Vaca Films (Spain)/Mandarin Cinema (France)/Alebrije Cine y Video (Mexico) production with the participation of TVE, Canal Plus. (International Sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Juan Gordon, Eric Altmayer, Monica Lozano, Emma Lustres. Executive producer, Pilar Benito. Directed by Iciar Bollain. Screenplay, Paul Laverty.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Alex Catalan; editor, Angel Hernandez Zoido; music, Alberto Iglesias; production designer, Juan Pedro de Gaspar; sound (Dolby Digital), Emilio Cortes. Reviewed at Roxy B Cinema, Madrid, Aug. 29, 2010. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Luis Tosar, Gael Garcia Bernal, Juan Carlos Aduviri, Karra Elejalde, Carlos Santos, Raul Arevalo.

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