When a film opens with a dedication to the late Howard Zinn, a proudly radical historian, you know you're in for a spell of progressive, populist storytelling. "Even the Rain" continues in Zinn's tradition of looking at things from the perspective of the oppressed. In this neatly worked-out melodrama, a troupe of Spanish filmmakers shoot an epic about Columbus' genocidal depredations while conducting themselves like latter-day conquistadors. Braiding fiction, history and reality, Paul Laverty's script incorporates the recent real-life episode in which foreign investors took control of Bolivia's lakes, rivers, even the rain. The tale is shamelessly didactic, but sleek direction and seductive star performances make it palatable. This film smothers the broccoli of ideology with the delicious cheese sauce of entertainment.

Gael García Bernal stars as Sebastian, a director making his dream project, an epic about Spain pillaging the New World and dissident missionary priests denouncing the brutal plunder. The film is being shot in Bolivia for economic reasons, despite the fact that the topography is wrong and the native Quechua Indians look nothing like the Tainos of the Indies. Still, the locals will work for $2 a day. "It's always about money, always," Sebastian says, high-fiving Costa, his bulldozer of a producer. That Costa is played by beetle-browed Luis Tosar, best known for playing despicable heavies, gives us a quick insight into his moral universe. Costa is a mercenary man of action, while Sebastian is a flighty fellow of broad sympathies and charitable impulses.

At first, that is. As each man bumps up against the realities of shooting with a cast of downtrodden native extras and supporting players, he finds himself in unfamiliar, challenging and morally ambiguous predicaments. Sebastian recruits firebrand local laborer Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri) to play the rebellious Spartacus figure of his story. Daniel delivers an electrifying performance, but frequently disappears to lead the locals in street protests against the Bolivian government's privatization of the water supply. Director Icíar Bollaín understands that a social conscience is a malleable thing, and it can be warped or strengthened under pressure. As things come to a boil, Sebastian and Costa find themselves doing things they probably couldn't rationalize, actions that seem to contradict their very nature but actually define who they truly are.

Chaos in the streets spills over into the production. The footage of the Columbus movie that we see is excellent -- photogenic and powerful enough that we root for it to be finished. Still, we're aware that Sebastian and his cast, rebuking tyranny in their universe of make-believe, are perpetuating the repressive status quo in real life. "Even the Rain" demonstrates that the battle lines of history haven't budged much in half a millennium as extras in ancient native dress surge around a police van that arrives on the movie set.

The face-offs between Daniel, Costa and Sebastian are engrossing political-ethical debates. Bernal is wonderful as the idealistic but morally nearsighted director. At a champagne reception with the local mayor, Sebastian argues the cause of the poor natives. The suave official notes that the film is paying its extras slave wages. Bernal's subsequent strained smile is a master class in screen acting: Hesitation, surprise, a feeble attempt to charm the mayor and an admission of defeat, all in the space of two seconds.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186