I missed this in cinemas but caught it through my HDD Recorder on (very) late night TV. Blackthorn is an excellent Western with an interesting background. Shot entirely in Bolivia with Spanish, French and UK inputs, the film was directed by Mateo Gil, best known perhaps as the writer of four films for Alejandro Amenábar (including Mar Adentro and Agora discussed on this blog). It was written by Miguel Barros and photographed by Juan Ruiz-Anchía (born in Bilbao, but long in the US). The cast includes leads who are American, Spanish, Irish, Danish and Peruvian. This is certainly a ‘global film’ as well as a Latin-American Western from the a region between Mexico and Argentina, the more usual locations for the genre.
The genealogy of the narrative is however pure Hollywood as it offers a third episode to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). There had already been a ‘prequel’ to the 1969 story in 1979 and since they were historical characters, the Butch and Sundance appear in other Western films and TV series. Blackthorn argues that Butch, Sundance and Etta Place survived a battle with Bolivian police in 1908 but Etta and Sundance then returned to the US while Butch Cassidy changed his name to James Blackthorn and retired to a small house in the hills to rear horses. The film begins in 1928 (when Butch/Blackthorn is 62 and played by a grizzled Sam Shepard). Etta has died and Blackthorn decides to return to the US to find Etta’s son (Blackthorn may be his father but he writes to him as ‘nephew’). Blackthorn sells his horses to pay for the trip but the money is then lost and Blackthorn finds himself on the run again, but this time with a Spanish mining engineer (played by Eduardo Noriega, another Amenábar film alumni). Much of the film is a chase narrative which will eventually lead to Blackthorn being discovered by his old foe Mackinley (Stephen Rea), once a Pinkerton detective, now an ‘honorary consul’ and town drunk. Intercut with this chase are short flashback sequences which show Butch (the younger version played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Pádraic Delaney) and Etta back in 1908. From these plot elements and castings it is clear that this is a ‘twilight Western’ with other inflections.
In the film’s press notes Gil:
One of the things that I like most about the Western is that it’s a truly moral genre. The characters face life and death, and other very important matters (freedom, commitment and loyalty, courage, treachery, ownership and money, justice, friendship and even love) in very pure and simple terms. The decisions they make are not only very dramatic, but set examples. What more can you ask from a film? From any dramatic work? It’s a genre that helps us look at our own life and find a way to face it.
But Gil disrupts this purity:
By facing these matters from a modern point of view (conscious of the fact that the legendary American outlaw will end up as just another extra in Hollywood Westerns).
His innovation is to introduce the Noriega character as an unreliable character. This has another dimension as well. The engineer is a Spanish adventurer, a representative of the ex-colonial power and as one IMDb user commented “a Madrileño in a film produced by Catalans” – so, clearly a bad guy.
The other intriguing statement by Gil refers to the ‘look’ of the film and its tone:
Blackthorn would not be a film made up by grandiose images and ‘traditional aesthetic’, of slow camera movements and tall crane shots; but of closer images, near to the characters, that allow us to see the landscape through their eyes as they reveal the most intimate side of their dramatic voyage. The deep-seated feelings our main character feels for the land that has sheltered him; his feelings about the past and how they are reawakened by the appearance of his new comrade; his feelings towards the woman with whom he spends his afternoons, although the passion of love is absent, affection, respect and carnality are all present; his feelings toward a young man he has never met but who could very well be his son, to whom he writes and directs every last effort; how he feels about the small things that surround him, his clean but simple home, his horses, what he chooses to take with him on this last trek, where he chooses to sleep each night as they advance . . .
This is a thoughtful film, under-appreciated by critics but appealing to fans of Westerns, I think. Gil’s ideas about the camerawork are put into practice by Ruiz-Anchía and I wish I’d seen this on a giant screen. We see the two hunted men traversing the high salt flat plateaux and then we see their PoV as across the staggeringly beautiful landscapes the tiny figures of their hunters race towards them. By contrast, the camera loves the craggy, weatherbeaten face of Sam Shepard. It’s an iconic image and Shepard seems to become the image of all ageing cowboys (he even sings four popular folk songs on the soundtrack, including ‘Wayfaring Stranger’).
Gil’s comments ring true in the simplicity and realism of his vision. This is one of the most beautiful, but also the harshest Westerns I’ve seen. It’s slow and pensive despite various shoot-outs. It has little to do with most Italian Westerns that I’ve seen, though the use of Irish actors – Etta is played by Dominique McElligott in the flashback sequences – did remind me of Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria with their Irish characters. In the classic twilight Western, the two central characters are usually two men of the same age with different views on how to deal with the death of the West. Here, Blackthorn tries to reconcile his past with a still possible future whereas the Noriega character is a younger man and a pragmatist. The other difference here is the role of the indigenous people of Bolivia who are not typed in the same way as Mexicans or Native Americans. They make up the group of hunters but they are ‘personalised’ in the character of Blackthorn’s lover played Yana played by the Peruvian actor with a growing presence in international cinema, Magaly Solier (see Magallanes, Peru 2015).
Blackthorn has some Spanish dialogue but is mainly in English. It’s well worth seeing.
También la Lluvia/Even the Rain didn’t get much of a UK release which is a pity because it is a very powerful and multi-faceted film. It is a highly political film which draws clear parallels between Spanish colonialism five centuries ago and modern globalised imperialism. It also raises questions about filming on location in poor countries, linking it to colonial exploitation. The film examines the contradictions encountered by even idealistic artists when forced to compromise with corporate sponsors in order to gain funding for their work and this limits their capacity to challenge the systems of power they attempt to portray.
The film portrays the efforts of a director and producer to make a historical film about Columbus, highlighting the genocidal rapaciousness involved in the conquest of the New World. It is dedicated to the memory of the late radical American historian Howard Zinn, which is fitting given the way the film sees history not simply as a reflection the past but also an attempt to better understand the present in order to influence the future.
It is set in 2000 in, and in the jungle around, Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochamba, and what makes this particular film different from other films with ‘Third World’ settings and low-cost local casts is the dramatic intrusion of external events. 2000 marks the high point of a massive protest in Cochabamba involving the local Quechua population struggling against the Bolivian government’s attempt to enforce water privatisation in which they sold the country’s water rights to a private multinational consortium. (The title, También la Lluvia/Even the Rain, refers to the notion that catching rainwater would be illegal). The film shows how the Bolivian state starts to enforce the company’s monopoly by getting the local police to padlock the people’s wells.
The film segues effectively between its two strands. The Columbus film is shown partly in rehearsal, partly in the viewing room and partly as viewers would see the finished film. The conflicting goals of the Columbus film and the revolt against water privatisation provide the film’s dramatic tension and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way the characters express their emotions as ‘themselves’ and simultaneously as characters in the Columbus film.
The film references several other films and genres. As a film-within-a–film, it recalls Truffaut’s La Nuit Americaine/Day for Night (1973) though it is less interested in the technical details of filmmaking, with few shots of cameras, lighting equipment etc. I also thought of Dennis Hopper’s crazy chaotic 1971 film, The Last Movie, shot in the nearby Peru. An early shot of a giant crucifix dangling from a helicopter seems like a hommage to Fellini’s 8½ while the attempts to put the crucifix in place in the middle of the jungle brings to mind Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) (though I’ve heard of no reports of the star attempting to shoot the director!) These references are perhaps misleading as it is very much in the realist tradition. The director, Icíar Bollaín, has written a book about Ken Loach; indeed, as an actor, she was in Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) and the script is by Paul Laverty, Loach’s regular collaborator.
The (main) film revolves around three central characters: Costa, the parsimonious producer (Luis Tosar), Sebastián, the director (Gael García Bernal) and Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), the leader of the anti-privatisation campaign who is taken on to play a leading role in the film. Costa has chosen the area as a cheap location standing for Hispaniola, not realising they would be in the middle of a populist uprising against the government’s betrayal.
Costa’s cynicism contrasted to director Sebastián’s apparent idealism is a rerun of the perennial ‘art-versus-commerce’ theme (the film flirts with but ultimately avoids cliché) but in the end the roles are to some extent reversed as Otero turns out to have more idealism than the “film-is- everything” attitude of the director. Bernal’s role is much smaller than Tosar’s, suggesting he was there to tentpole the modestly-budgeted project out of political sympathy (he is an anti-globalisation campaigner and was a Zapatista sympathiser in his youth) http://www.timeout.com/film/news/1097/gael-garc-a-bernal-interview.html
The opening scene foreshadows what is to come as local people respond to the director’s “open casting” invitation by arriving in their hundreds and queuing up, in some cases for hours. When the filmmakers, having selected the people they need, try and dismiss the rest of the crowd, trouble breaks out. One in particular, Daniel, who was there as his daughter Belén (Milena Soliz) is keen to get a tryout for the film, insists angrily that they all must get their chance. Despite the producer’s fears that they will have a troublemaker on their hands, Sebastian overcomes Costa’s objections because he feels Daniel is so right for the film and casts him as Atuey, a key leader in the failed Tainos revolt against Columbus and Spanish rule, and Belén as Atuey’s daughter Panuca.
They do not initially realise that Daniel is a prominent leader of the Cochabamba protests and his role in the struggle will interfere with the making of the film. Costa has to bribe the police chief to get him out of jail for a vital scene, keeping from Daniel the fact that he has to go back once the scene is shot. The dramatic highpoint occurs when, in the Columbus film, the Spanish soldiers burn Atuey and two other Tainos at the stake. Bartolomé de Las Casas(Carlos Santos), a 16th century Catholic Bishop and historian, tries to persuade them not to go through with it as it will make it more difficult to win the people to Christianity and make a martyr of Atuey. However, the limitations of pious appeals are shown in the modern story when the police arrive to re-arrest Daniel and the Quechu actors get down from the cross and take direct action to free Daniel from the police car. There is another important character, Anton (Karra Elejalde) who plays Columbus. He is an idealist led to cynicism and drink perhaps by his disappointment. He ridicules the idea that Las Casas should be the conscience of the Columbus film, pointing out that he had supported the idea of importing slaves from Africa to spare the indigenous population.
The two strands of the film – the film and the film-within-the-film – might have been difficult to integrate but También la Lluvia manages this successfully, the conflicting goals of the Columbus film and the revolt against water privatisation providing the film’ s dramatic tension, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way the characters express their emotions as ‘themselves’ and simultaneously as characters in the Columbus film.
The final sequence of the film shows the rise in tension as the dispute escalates, with fighting on the street, barricades and bullets, leading to the film crew having to abandon the film and head for the airport. It is at this point that the film develops into a political thriller as the producer Costa drives through the streets, with army check-points and protesters’ barricades, dodging army bullets on the way, to get the seriously-wounded Belén to hospital.
Costa’s personal transformation, under the influence of his friendship with Belén, could be seen as unconvincing and there only to set up an exciting climax in the form of a traditional chase scene. However, this view underestimates the capacity of individuals to reassess their actions as their own values are challenged and begin to change. Moreover, in his discussion with Sebastian, It is strongly hinted that Costa was not always interested only in the bottom line, that he has retained the core of idealism which brought him originally into filmmaking.
This is a very complex, intelligent and powerful film that works on several levels. As a piece of drama, with a compelling musical soundtrack, it captures and holds the audience’s attention and says something important about the inspiring challenges around the world to the global corporate order in South America.
Here is the trailer:
If you are of a cynical disposition and wonder if Tambien la Lluvia fell into the same situation with regard to exploitation of local labour, have a look at a long interview with Iciar Bollain on Youtube: