JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Babel’s filmmakers wanted a “pink/magenta shade” to be dominant in the Japan scenes.

In contrast to the bleached out Morocco scenes and the intensely colored Mexico scenes, the mild pink/magenta shade prepares viewers to associate Tokyo with subjective interiority.

Babel muffles diegetic sounds of Tokyo street life to convey the deaf girl’s subjective experience.

A nanny in California takes her employer’s call from Morocco. This domestic scene with its relatively nondescript mise-en-scene stands in contrast to the exotic and dangerous Morocco of previous scenes.

In its credit sequence Even the Rain pays homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which opens with a helicopter carrying a Christ statue over Rome. Here, the cross is a prop for a Spanish film about Columbus’s arrival in the “New World.”

Daniel emerges as a rebel in the opening scene. He later leads protests against water privatization and acts in Sebastian’s film as Hatuey, leader of Indian resistance.

An image from Sebastian’s film: Daniel, dressed as Hatuey, looks defiantly at Columbus.  

Even the Rain’s opening shot reveals a busy Cochabamba side street. The film recreates the Water War that took place in the year 2000 between multinational Bechtel and the citizens of Bolivia.

We observe street life from the perspective of Sebastian, a Spaniard who has come to Bolivia to direct a movie about Columbus.

Whereas the scene begins with Sebastian’s point of view, it ends with Daniel’s.

Daniel’s point of view reveals the Spanish filmmakers driving away from the audition. From the outset, Even the Rain generates ambiguity about how and with whom we should align our gaze.

During a script rehearsal, Anton—who plays Columbus in Sebastian’s film—starts improvising the conquistadors’ arrival in America.

A shot of these servers invites us to regard the Spanish actors from the perspective of ordinary Bolivians.

Medium shots in the latter half of the script-reading scene create ambiguity: have we entered the world of Sebastian’s film? Or are we still watching the actors rehearse in present-day Cochabamba?

Past and present converge when an aggressive Anton/Columbus makes the female server into a character for his scene improvisation.

The server’s stoic response creates discomfort, prompting us to notice how the legacies of colonial relations inform the present.

Cinematographer Prieto claims that they “looked for more of a pink/magenta shade” for the Japan-based episodes.In stark contrast to the mise-en-scene of the Mexican wedding, the muted colors of the Japan-based scenes prepare the viewer to expect subjective interiority.The viewer learns to see even chaotic Tokyo through a private lens—in part because of the film’s strategy to muffle or override diegetic sound at key moments to reflect the deaf girl’s experience of her world. Meanwhile, the brief scenes set in United States take place mostly indoors, within the white family’s home, with the mise-en-scene calling little attention to the special qualities of the world being depicted.

On the whole, the Mexican and Moroccan contexts appear both exotic and dangerous, while the Japanese and U.S. episodes appear relatively private and domestic. The children as well as adults from a single white U.S. family find themselves in positions of vulnerability in Morocco and Mexico, and their points of view set the tone for much of the storytelling.

Speaking of late twentieth-century cultural expression David Harvey points out,

“A strong sense of ‘the Other’ is replaced…by a weak sense of ‘the others.’ The loose hanging together of divergent street cultures in the fragmented spaces of the contemporary city re-emphasizes the contingent and accidental aspects of this ‘otherness’ in daily life” (Condition 301).

In other words, a political and structural analysis of the subjugated “Other” is replaced by a notion of accidental otherness. Harvey suggests that within the context of postmodern culture, a historical view of power relations resulting from class struggle and imperialism is harder to articulate in the presence of a generalized, dehistoricized sense of the coexistence of human diversity. This “weak sense” of otherness also informs Babel’s representation of a visibly “disjunct” world and makes the film liable—even if unwittingly—to reinforcing cultural stereotypes.

It is true that the viewer is made aware of the insularity of the adult Americans and their incapacity—precisely because of their privilege—to adapt to places like Morocco. The viewer is also exposed to the injustices of globalization as we watch the Mexican nanny suffer in a world in which borders between neighboring nations are policed to the detriment of poor migrants. And we notice how the unwitting act of a young boy in Morocco is immediately and without evidence deemed “terrorism” by the U.S. press and government, leading to the tragic death of the boy’s brother.

Nevertheless, despite its critique of the myopic attitudes of U.S. citizens and their government, the film reinforces Hollywood conventions of representing white Americans in danger whenever they are outside the United States, especially when they are in poor nations. After being confronted with the precariousness of the white Americans’ lives in Mexico and Morocco, the viewer returns to the relative calm of the prosperous, domestic spaces of California and Japan with almost a sense of relief.

However self-conscious it may be in showing that danger is produced in part by Americans’ own perceptions and misunderstandings, Babel nevertheless reinforces popular depictions of spaces like Morocco and Mexico as being not just economically impoverished but also zones of anarchy. In this sense, the film contributes towards a mythification of zones of economic advancement and of “underdevelopment”—by maintaining through its visual style their stark separation. As in the case of colonialist and development discourse, however, the viewer fails to understand how it is that some places are economically less developed, or why it is that we live in a bifurcated world, or what histories might connect various parts of the world beyond mere accidental linkages.

Bordwell speaks of how network narratives “evoke poetic linkages. A film’s mottos tend to be both ‘me and you and everyone we know’ and ‘mind the gap’—gaps being the slender, precarious affinities that can suggest subterranean forces bringing fates together” (Poetics 198). Like Syriana—whose tagline is “Everything is connected”—Babel suggests that all its characters’ stories are connected because of the gun that created a ripple effect in their lives. However, as with postmodern art, “highly simplified rhetorical propositions” (Harvey, Condition 351) take the place of engaging with character depth, especially in the case of the Moroccan and Mexican characters.

In what follows I will show how Even the Rain draws on but also departs from the contemporary network narrative’s investment in exposing fragile connections between people and places. My analysis will focus on the manner in which Bollaín’s film counters contemporary network narratives’ “spatial bias” and generalized view of otherness, even as it also reflects constraints imposed by dominant conventions of storytelling.

Even the Rain and historical connection

According to John E Davidson,

“The celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus’s ‘discoveries’—and with it five hundred years of the ‘New World Order—heightened many ongoing debates about the roles of media and representation in the construction of colonial history” (101).

Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty began writing Even the Rain at the end of the 1990s—shortly after the quincentennial and amidst the debates of which Davidson speaks.

Having previously written scripts for Ken Loach’s films, [11] [open endnotes in new window] Laverty found inspiration for Even the Rain in radical historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He set out to compose a period piece based on Zinn’s account of the resistance to Spanish colonialism launched by the Indians as well as humanitarian priests, Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos. Laverty in fact began developing this script with Alejandro González Iñárritu; however, Iñárritu had to leave the project when he started work on another film (Dawson 44).[12] Meanwhile, Laverty found himself dissatisfied with the initial script and decided to change it. As he put it, “‘The historical story felt very distant— I wanted to make it more immediate’” (Dawson 44). When years later he traveled to Bolivia with Icíar Bollaín, Laverty met those who had resisted water privatization and who showed him the seven kilometers of trenches they had dug to procure water for themselves, in defiance of multinational corporate control. Laverty says,

“[He] couldn't help but notice the parallels between the multinational corporations and Columbus. Once again the indigenous population are resisting with sticks and stones, and are being chased by dogs.[13] This time rather than gold and slavery, it's about water” (Dawson 44).

The eventual script of Even the Rain signals continuities between the actions of the conquistadors and multinational corporations, thereby exposing brutalities of the colonial past as well as the neoliberal present.

Spanish director Icíar Bollaín’s previous films dealt with cultural identity and gender relations in contemporary Spain. Film scholar Susan Martin-Márquez points out that in Bollain’s first two feature-length films, Hola! ¿Estás sola? (Hi, Are You Alone?) (1995) and Flores de otro mundo (Flowers from Another World) (1999), the “treatment of notions of home, of displacement, and of cultural difference emerges from the contemporary contexts of globalization rather than from the traumas of the post-Civil War period” (257).

Although Even the Rain is set outside Spain, the film interrogates contemporary Spanish identity in ways that resonate with Bollaín’s previous work. We watch uncomfortably as the idealistic Spanish director, Sebastian (Gael García Bernal), and his pragmatic film producer, Costa (Luis Tosar), are forced during their time in Cochabamba to confront the persistent legacies of their nation’s imperialist past. Whereas major stars of transnational Spanish cinema play the roles of Sebastian and Costa, Bollain’s film also depends on non-actors, including some of the actual protestors that Laverty interviewed as well as the Bolivian Juan Carlos Aduviri who plays the crucial part of Daniel/Hatuey.

At the start of Even the Rain, we learn that Costa cares primarily about how cheap it is to shoot in Bolivia. It does not matter to him that the film he is producing shows Columbus arriving in the Andes rather than in the Caribbean, or that indigenous Bolivians play the part of Tainos, or that Bolivian Quechua stands in for the Taino language. Although Sebastian is critical of Costa’s thinking and better informed about Spain’s colonial history, he nevertheless goes along with Costa’s production plan. Moreover, like Costa, Sebastian fails to understand Daniel, an indigenous Bolivian who organizes protests against water privatization while simultaneously acting in the Spaniards’ film as Hatuey, leader of Indian resistance against the conquistadors. Although Sebastian initially appears more humane, at the end of Even the Rain, it is Costa rather than Sebastian who is morally transformed by his encounters with Daniel.

Bordwell elaborates as one of the defining features of the cinematic network narrative:

“The film can reveal and anticipate connections by employing unrestricted narration, skipping back and forth among people and places” (Poetics 207).

Even the Rain deploys unrestricted narration to move back and forth between characters not only across scenes but also within a single scene, thereby generating ambiguity about the narrative point of view.

For instance, the film begins by oscillating between the perspectives of a few characters, chiefly Sebastian and Daniel. The opening tracking shot is from Sebastian’s point of view, as he looks out from the safety of his moving vehicle at a dusty side street in Cochabamba. Midway through the scene we cut to a more neutral perspective when we watch Sebastian and Costa worm their way through a crowd of Bolivians gathered to audition for their film. Tension mounts when Costa decides to audition only a chosen few, and Daniel emerges as a rebel by inciting the others to not move until the filmmakers had given every one a chance. When Sebastian agrees to Daniel’s demand, he appears momentarily to be the humane one in the crew. The very next instant, however, he appears crudely opportunistic, asking his assistant to film “that bastard [Daniel]…He’s good.” The following shot tracks closer toward Daniel and his daughter, as the crowd cheers on in the background. While Sebastian looks up at a helicopter carrying a massive cross that we gather is a prop for the film shoot, Even the Rain cuts to a close up of Daniel.[14] The scene’s final shot is from Daniel’s perspective as he looks on at the filmmakers driving away from the dusty scene. Thus, whereas we followed Sebastian’s gaze at the scene’s beginning, by its end we watch him and his crew from the perspective of Daniel. The entry of non-diegetic music at the scene’s end further invites us to contemplate the departing foreigners from a critical distance.

The productive ambiguity generated by this opening scene drives much of the film, prompting the viewer to recognize the power differential that structures relations between the Spaniards and the Bolivians. As the film proceeds, ambiguity is used also to blur the line between past and present.

For instance, in a script-reading scene, the camera pans across a table full of Spanish actors as we hear one of them read stage directions describing Taino children’s faces on witnessing Columbus’s arrival in the New World. We hear that the children are hit by a strange smell as the bearded Spaniards disembark. Momentarily the viewer of Even the Rain begins to see the modern bearded Spaniards past whom the camera pans as the conquistadors of Sebastian’s film script. When the drunken Anton (Karra Elejalde), playing Christopher Columbus, bursts into his role, the camera follows his movements and lowers itself as he kneels. When the other actors join Anton/Columbus by kneeling with him for prayer the film cuts to two servers standing in attention beside the abundant food table.

As the scene continues, a handheld camera captures a close shot of Anton/Columbus deliberating with another actor. This shot, that seems to listen in on a private conversation between Columbus and the ship captain, momentarily gives us the illusion that we have entered the world of Sebastian and Costa’s film. Tension mounts as the actors approach the female server and Anton/Columbus grabs at her earring and asks her where he can find gold.[15] Her refusal to answer makes him raise his voice. Past and present seem to converge as the conquistadors, now Spanish actors, confront a native woman who becomes increasingly stoic in her response . After a tense moment of uncomfortable silence, Anton snaps out of his role—much to the relief and amusement of his crew—and apologizes to the server for the actors’ “selfishness.” The scene ends with a shot of the woman looking at the actors.

This final shot is a brief one. Nevertheless, like the earlier shots of the servers, it invites the viewer to “build inferences out of teases, hints, and gaps”—a trait that Bordwell sees as characteristic of network narratives, as well as mystery films (Poetics, 200). Throughout Even the Rain, gaps and ambiguity prompt the viewer to reflect on the historical basis of the relationship between the Spaniards and the Bolivians. Thus, like most network narratives, Even the Rain brings strangers together; but their connection is attributed not to accident but rather to colonial power and its legacies.

Bordwell suggests,

“In watching a network narrative … we’re often coaxed to notice how characters are sharply similar or different from one another” (Poetics 211).

Even the Rain exemplifies this feature of the network narrative, for having established the film crew and its interactions with the locals, subsequent scenes are layered through a logic of parallelism and contrast.

As in most network narratives, the device of crosscutting enables exposition of these parallels and oppositions—but in the case of Even the Rain crosscutting moves the viewer not only across space but also time. As we increasingly alternate between the story of Columbus and the conquistadors—told through Sebastian’s film—and the story of the Cochabamba uprising, we are invited to reflect on a host of parallels: between Columbus and the multinational corporations of today, between gold and water, and between the dispossessed indigenous populations of the past and present. The alternation between scenes with Daniel leading protests in the Water War and then playing the role of indigenous leader, Hatuey, in Sebastian’s film reinforces historical linkages. But in addition to such linkages, the film emphasizes the contrast between the Bolivians’ perspective on history and that of the Spanish film crew.

For instance, in one scene, a group of indigenous women challenges officials from the private water company who are breaking the lock to their collectively-owned well. When the women manage to prevail, Even the Rain cuts to Sebastian’s crew rehearsing a scene that takes place in March 1511. As the actor who plays Montesinos gives a church sermon challenging the exploitation of Indians, Even the Rain cuts between his performance and shots of Bolivian construction workers looking on at the rehearsal. As we cut back and forth in this scene, the viewer is invited to wonder about the links between indigenous populations of the past and present—and about how the workers (and, perhaps, the women from the previous scene) might regard Sebastian’s film that tells the story of colonial exploitation from the point of view of exceptional, humanitarian Spaniards.

A group of indigenous women resist the private water company’s control over their community well. Crosscutting moves us between present and past—between the women’s protest to actors playing fifteenth-century Spaniards. Workers constructing the film set look on as Sebastian directs another rehearsal.
An actor performs Spanish priest Montesinos’ humanitarian defense of Indian rights. We cut to Bolivian construction workers watching Montesinos defend Indian humanity. Their gaze makes us wonder how indigenous Bolivians view the content of Sebastian’s film.

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