Thursday, May 18, 2006

New Film: Whisky

Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's Whisky, a 2004 Uruguayan film that was recently released on DVD in the US in lieu of a wider theatrical run, further confirms the vitality of Latin American art cinema, while introducing a new nation and its under-35 talent(s) to global audiences. Allying themselves with Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki -- and displaying the director's same droll treatment of the banalities of working class life, which is to say the Kaurismäki touch -- Rebella and Stoll bring their poker-faced humor to a retrograde sock factory, where its proprietor prepares for the visit of his estranged brother (who happens to own a flashier sock factory in Brazil, replete with the latest in Italian technology). Without providing any verbal justification or even explanation, the Uruguayan factory head Jacobo asks one of his older employees, Marta, to stay with him during his brother's visit. Marta seems to understand implicitly that she is to pretend to be his wife, to which she agrees without protest.

When Herman arrives, ostensibly for some fete celebrating their mother, the former quickly ingratiates himself with Marta, demonstrating a far sunnier disposition than his über-dour sibling. Parenthetically, it should be said that this is a film of exceptional preformances, particularly that of Mirella Pascual as Marta. Much to their credit, the directors successfully showcase her understated, aged, everyday beauty in a manner that belies her plain appearance.

So, returning to the narrative, when Herman suggests that the three travel to a seaside resort and casino, Marta hastily consents, even as Jacobo refuses. Suffice it to say that they go.

Once at the resort, the three occupy themselves with such world-wide pass times as air hockey (more movies need air hockey in this writer's opinion), karaoke (Uruguay's chances of producing the next Shakira seem bleak indeed), and gambling (the film's single greatest moment of suspense surrounds Jacobo's all-in wager on a single number in roulette).

Yet, it is not simply this one moment which Rebella and Stoll imbue with suspense, but indeed they succeed in producing one of the most dramatic narratives in the past few years from a single tension: will Jacobo and Marta stay together after the play acting has concluded? The seemingly happily-married father of two Herman is little more than a McGuffin with respect to his own potential for interference. Ultimately, the Jacobo and Marta union represents a life that could have been, maybe -- after all, we cannot say with any certainty that Marta is single. The spectacle of Whisky is in seeing a life the way it perhaps should be, with persons filling roles that they certainly seem adept in filling. Why can't life just be this way: two lonely people coming together, ordering each other's lives (with her tidying of his flat, for instance, Marta breathes a certain life back into Jacobo's formerly dingy living space) and spending their free days playing at a resort?

But of course, when the vacation ends, its back to the dreary industrial city, back to the sock factory, where one day passes like another. Though it is clearly subsumed in a plausible-enough narrative structure, the contingent quality of the plot offers an instantiation or at least a congruence with the character's feelings -- and more importantly, the spectators', from a position of limited psychological insight -- that suggests possibility rather than actuality. Though the film is doggedly observant, its structure almost effervescently signals a narrative of fantasy rather than reality.

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