Films about films don't always engage with the viewer. Historical films can also be hit and miss on occasions. So why not tell a historical story through modern day lenses using the device of making a film on location in Bolivia. Quite a feat of imagination, and one that on the face of it would be difficult to pull off. But Spanish director Iciar Bollain, with the help of her talented scriptwriter Paul Laverty has made something that is imaginative, thought provoking and perceptive. A real tour de force of film talent and ability. The film within the film is based largely on the Dominican priest Padre Antonio Montesinos, who spoke out in March 1511 against the might of the Spanish empire. His denunciation of the mistreatment and murder of indigenous peoples by the Spanish conquerors was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. His words carry great resonance today, and as such are ideal for a contemporary setting. It is worth quoting him here. "Look into an Indian's eyes. Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves". Brave words that probably pronounced his own death sentence. A story worth telling!
Luis Tosar plays the opportunistic executive producer Costa, who exploits the indigenous people of Bolivia by only paying them a 2 dollar pittance for a days work. All part of cutting the costs! Gael Garcia Bernal plays the Mexican film director Sebastian. Accompanied by a cast and crew they arrive in Cochabamba, Bolivia to make a film about the arrival of Columbus in the New World, particularly highlighting their cruel and exploitive treatment of the local Taino indian population, which lead to their eventually extermination. Tosar's behaviour of course echoes this. History is then bridged as filming takes place against the background of the water war in Bolivia, where violent privatisation of water fuelled by the interests of foreign investors lead to protests across the country. It is probably better to read Oscar Oliveira's eye witness account "Cochabamba, Water War in Bolivia", to understand the cruel injustives visited on the indigenous peoples. So, nothing much changes over 500 years and the peon class still gets a raw deal. In an original way this highlights the heroic finger in the dam protest by that one lone priest so many years before. But someone has to make a stand, and that is at the very heart of this film. Ken Loach would love this! No surprise then that Laverty wrote the screenplay for Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley".
Luis Tosar is superb as Costa who finally realises that there are more important things than making a film. Karra Elijalde does an impressive turn as the alcoholic actor who plays Christopher Columbus in the film. The film also imitates the trials and tribulations of filmmaking on location, when crews can be at the mercy of more volatile local politics. The powerful documentary film "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse" famously documented the hardships endured by Francis Ford Coppola and his crew to film the epic "Apocalypse Now". I was also reminded of Werner Herzog's epic film "Fitzcarraldo" also filmed on location and where there were strong accusations of mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Something this film was at pains to refute. The Jesuit priest that Jeremy Irons played in that brilliant film "The Mission", who was willing to die to protect his native converts, could almost have been based on Padre Montesinos. The words of Montesinos are both brilliant and passionate. The film captures a lot of those qualities particularly in a final scene involving water, a commodity that can be as precious as gold! An important film that has something worthwhile to say.