Cheesy grin without the booze

Whisky is a brilliant toast to the nature of happiness in a Uruguay crumbling but still able to smile

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Whisky
Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella
2004 (Spanish with English subtitles), Pandora/Ctrl Z/Rizoma
95 minutes

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: ****

CONTROL yourselves: this film is not about alcohol. The phrase “whisky” is used in place of “say cheese” when photographers or in fact anyone taking a snapshot require cardboard-shy people to smile. And this charming movie certainly makes you smile, is as good as a stiff whisky for cheering you up – and is endearingly cheesy.

Whisky is about forced smiles and the nature of happiness – and the fact that some people may wish to appear happy, but just cannot or do not want to be so.

Ageing Jewish businessman Jacobo Koller (Andrés Pazos) lives in Montevideo and his life is run by a rigid routine running an old fashioned family sock factory. Love and youth have passed him by after years of looking after his sick mother and tending to his noisy machinery.

Yet Jacobo faces a test when, a year after his mother’s death, the ceremony of her matzeivah (the placement of the gravestone on her tomb) brings back his brother Hermann (Jorge Bolani) from Brazil where he now lives. Hermann is younger, cooler and happily married – and also runs a state-of-the-art sock factory successfully.

Illusion of success

After years of silence, Jacobo finds himself enviously comparing his life to that of Hermann. He decides to create an illusion of success by pretending that he just has married, and recruits Marta (Mirella Pascual), the dour supervisor at his factory, to play the role of his wife. A middle-aged spinster for whom work and the voice of Leonardo Fabio in her Walkman are her only sources of pleasure, the dutiful Marta agrees.

In this way the directors set up a cringingly embarrassing scenario suffused with dry humour. Marta immediately brings order to Jacobo’s sad bachelor’s pad and makes up her face in stark contrast to her grey working persona in order to play the part of a happy wife. And all this comes surprisingly easily, for without realising it both characters have for years shared as much drudgery as any married couple by doing the same things in the same space for eight hours a day every day.

Hermann arrives, upsets the jealous Jacobo in just about every way but also manages to charm Marta with his modern take on life. He decides to treat his older brother and wife to a trip to the posh but crumbling Piriápolis resort, Uruguay’s equivalent of the Côte d’Azur, where both brothers enjoyed holidays as kids.

In the resort Jacobo confirms that he is unable to enjoy life, while Marta and Hermann discover their affinities and she finds herself to be witty and able to have fun. Hermann tries to apologise to his brother for his absence at the time of mother’s death by giving him an envelope full of money to modernise his crumbling factory. Indignant, Jacobo tries to lose the money in a casino, but to his disgust ends up winning even more. Even in winning, he is a loser.

The talented Stoll and Rebella show a great deal of skill as directors in this, their second film to gain international recognition. Their carefully cultured images and atmosphere, and simple but effective script, convey through Whisky a melancholic, grey and dilapidated Uruguay that has seen better days but is now frozen in time. Here, Jacobo is a metaphor for a country struggling to survive alongside its shining and risk-taking neighbours, yet still governed by old-fashioned manners and respect. The situations prove tense but subtly comical, especially when Hermann keeps questioning the odd couple about their honeymoon.

Whisky deservedly won the Sundance NHK international filmmakers award for Latin America 2004 as well as a host of other regional and international awards.

Pascual literally shines in her role as Marta Acuña and won the best actress award for this film at the Lima Latin American Festival and Tokyo International Film Festival 2004. Pazos is brilliantly dull and grumpy as Jacobo, and Bolani proves to be a genius at irritating the audience with his naff entrepreneurial energy as the younger Herman.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist