Desperation has rarely been as quiet as Mirella Pascual plays it in “Whisky,” an understated character study in loneliness that is one of the most celebrated films to ever come out of Uruguay.
This 2004 jewel is about routine, life going on without living and the sudden introduction of a wild card that may or may not change things forever.
The set-up is sit-com gimmicky. Marta (Pascual), faithful assistant manager of the tiny sock factory Montevideo owned by Señor Jacobo Köller (Andrés Pazos). She is there, waiting for him to open up the place every AM, and stands by the time-clock as the employees leave at night — checking their bags to ensure nobody is swiping socks.
Jacobo inherited this as the family business, and one year ago, his other died. That’s prompted a letter to his long-estranged brother Herman in Brazil.
It’s time for the matzeibe, the unveiling of the tombstone. Maybe brother Herman should finally come home. But when he says he will, Jacobo is in a fix. He hasn’t improved the factory, with its lint-caked wiring and lighting fixtures, in decades. He drives an ancient Peugeot that he has to massage into starting, dresses down and has let the house go.
Herman, married with two daughters, will spend the whole visit showing him up. Could Marta maybe come stay at the house for a few days?
The whole “pretend you’re my wife” thing is left unsaid. That’s how long these two have been in each other’s company. She may go home by herself and go out to the movies alone. But she’s also been tending to his needs — coffee, bookkeeping, maintaining morale in the ranks.
A lot for a 50something woman hollowed out by loneliness to manage. But she knows the man better than he knows himself. All she needs is his mother’s wedding band, a single photo of them together, and it’s game on.
Herman (Jorge Bolani) turns out to be the brother with all the personality. Being around the two of them just highlights Jacobo’s bitter resignation, his anti-social tendencies. There’s a lot of chatter over meals and the like. But Jacobo isn’t in on it.
Even taking his brother to a soccer match is a trial and requires trash-talking fakery Jacobo isn’t really up to. Marta is more conversational (in Spanish, with English subtitles). But even she slips up with the odd, deferential “sir” used in an inappropriate way.
And then Herman talks them into letting him stay a little longer.
There’s a romantic comedy buried under a lifetime of overlooking each other in this situation and in these performances. It’s just that the little dress-up/put-on-make-up-and-pearls makeover changes Marta, but it doesn’t dent Jacobo.
The subtlety in the performances begins with the script, which never ever “tells” us something when it can let the actors “show” it instead.
The pace won’t be to every taste, and the frustration built in here is more deflating than unbearable. Even a trip to Uruguay’s tourist-trap coast can’t shake the gloom, the routine Jacobo won’t break no matter how much Marta comes out of her shell.
I’m not sure how this played in Latin America, but in North America the sense of the difference between “surviving” and “living” is what stands out. And that keeps “Whisky” — the only whimsical thing about it is the title — in the memory, on a pedestal and still held in great esteem decades after its release.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, adult situations, alcohol, smoking
Credits: Directed by Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll, script by Gonzalo Delgado, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll.
Running time: 1:38