Jacobo Köller is the owner of a small outdated factory in Uruguay’s grey and quiet port of Montevideo. A year after his mother’s death, his brother Herman visits from Brazil to attend the ceremony of the setting of the stone in the cemetery. Jacobo asks Marta, his loyal chief employee, to pretend they are a married couple while his brother is visiting. After the ceremony, Herman invites the couple to take a brief holiday in a seaside resort. Jacobo reluctantly agrees. Herman gives Jacobo money as compensation for his absence during their mother’s illness and death. Jacobo gambles with it in the hotel casino with the intention to lose it, but he doubles the money. Herman flies back to Brazil and Jacobo and Marta separate once more. Jacobo gives Marta the money he won at the casino in exchange for her services. The next morning, Jacobo goes about his regular routine. He gets up, goes to the factory and opens it. This time, Marta is not there.
Every morning, Jacobo (Andrés Pazos), a monotone and austere Jewish man of maybe 70, meticulously repeats the same routine: he gets up, gets in an old automobile that takes a while to turn on, and rides through an almost deserted and still dark Montevideo to arrive at his modest sock factory where Marta (Mirella Pascual) awaits him, a timid middle-aged woman who is his loyal employee. After a frugal greeting, Jacobo brings up the workshop’s metal shutter and turns on the machines. While Marta puts on her work apron and makes herself some tea, Jacobo tries fruitlessly to adjust the blinds in his office. Marta remains in the machine room all day, inspecting socks off the conveyer belt and managing two other employees. By day’s end, she checks the bags of the other workers, marks their time sheets, and meets Jacobo outside as he closes the gates to the factory. In the first half of Whisky the actors barely speak. ‘Excuse me’ as she enters his office and a lugubrious ‘See you tomorrow, God willing’. The two exchange the usual courtesies and depart only to return the next day to continue the monotony.
On several occasions the camera repeats the same sequence of images and sounds to account for Jacobo and Marta’s routine. Fragments of the quotidian routine structured through repetition and the small rituals of a disaffected existence make up the story of Whisky (2004), the second film of Uruguayan filmmakers Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella.1 The conflict or, better yet, the latent tension which justifies the development of the story arises precisely from a situation which destabilises the routine that is presented in the introductory scenes. Jewish tradition dictates placing the headstone on a tomb one year after a person’s death. On the first anniversary of the death of Jacobo’s mother, Herman (Jorge Bolani), Jacobo’s brother who lives in Brazil, decides to travel to Montevideo to attend the ceremony. In order to keep up appearances and almost without exchanging words, Jacobo asks Marta to pretend to be his wife during Herman’s visit. Marta agrees and before Herman’s arrival she manages a small transformation: she does her hair, she cleans Jacobo’s apartment, she schedules a photo shoot in order to produce a portrait of the newlyweds, and she improvises an imagined honeymoon to Iguazú Falls.
Herman’s visit is deliciously uncomfortable. There is a constant and silent confrontation between the two brothers. We learn that Jacobo had to handle the burden of his mother’s illness and that Herman’s sock factory in Sao Paulo is more modern and successful. The contrast between Marta’s minimalist enthusiasm, Jacobo’s emphatic apathy, and Herman’s enterprising yet naïve character transform the visit into a low-intensity comedy. The trivialities that are commented on and the superficial and contained performances produce a dry and absurd humour.
However, the film is not only a model of narrative economy with regard to the execution of the characters. The modest mise-en-scène presents images where the objects and spaces exactly describe those who inhabit them. The moment in which Jacobo and Marta pose for their wedding picture condenses the mise-en-scène of the entire film. Jacobo’s imperturbable head comes out of the frame, prompting the photographer to insist that he crouch down to Marta’s height before asking them both to say ‘whisky’ (the Uruguayan version of the English ‘cheese’). Nonetheless, the photographer is only able to incite the hint of a smile from the apathetic couple. On a purely cinematographic narrative level, Rebella and Stoll’s entire film is a succession of equally static shots. The whole story is told through the singular point of view of one camera, always immobile, that steadfastly registers characters with dull interior lives in slightly absurd situations.2
The choice of tonality in the film reinforces this sort of atmosphere. Herman’s visit happens during winter such that greys and browns abound in exterior shots. However, interior spaces and objects also have the same tonality. In a film where the characters hardly speak, the narration is articulated through objects. The oxygen tank and the wheelchair in Jacobo’s apartment make his mother’s absence fiercely present. The ugliness of the objects from the past not only inhabits Jacobo’s apparently tedious and repetitive day-to-day life, but also responds to a social world that is stuck. Everything in the universe of Whisky revolves around the dilapidated or rundown. The machines in Jacobo’s factory are old, the socks that come out of the conveyer belts have imperfections, the blinds in his office do not function properly, and his car does not start. In the bar that he visits daily, the fluorescent lights never really turn on and the businesses where he offers up his wares seem stuck in the past.
After the ceremony in the cemetery, Herman invites Marta and Jacobo to spend a few days in Piriápolis, a resort on the Uruguayan coast that the brothers frequented as kids with their parents. In the off-season, with a hotel casino that is practically vacant, the place of their childhood holidays also becomes a desolate world. However, while Jacobo remains cold and distant from the other characters, the melancholy atmosphere of Piriápolis becomes the backdrop for a minimal union between Marta and Herman, which is never fully realised. In the airport, when they say their goodbyes, Marta gives Herman a note to read on the plane, but we never see its content.
Given the modest gestures of the actors and the absurd humour of some situations, Whisky’s aesthetic brings to mind the films of Aki Kaurismaki, while the attention to mechanisms of repetition and the minimal mise-en-scène signal the influence of the cinematography of the Argentine director, Martín Rejtman. At the same time, the mise-en-scène of Whisky could be a response to the social and cultural context of Uruguay. The story of the film is not only the story of two brothers that make socks and a dull and loyal employee; Whisky is a portrait of Uruguay as a country that remained immobile in some part of history. If the contrast between the socks that Jacobo makes in his factory in Montevideo, brown and with rhombi, and the more modern socks that Herman makes in Brazil and exports to Chile suggests this backwardness, the scene in which Jacobo bets all the money his brother gives him to modernise his factory in the hope of losing it all speaks of stagnation as a certain option. According to Adrián Singer, the decadence of Jacobo’s factory works as a metonymy of the decadence of Uruguayan society, where everything works with the minimum conditions and in the lowest possible intensity.3
In this ‘comedy without joy’, Jacobo maintains his bitter character, resistant to changing times, but Herman’s warmer presence produces a certain sense of humour and fun in Marta. With the arrival of Jacobo’s brother, Marta’s personality begins to emerge: she dresses up, she wears make up, she shares Herman’s strange ability to repeat any sentence with an inverse meaning, and she loves Leonardo Favio’s music. While the story does not finalise Marta’s romantic rebirth, it does gradually demonstrate both the profundity of her tranquil desperation and her unexpected capacity for change. After returning from the resort and once Herman has left, Marta bids Jacobo farewell with the same monotonous expression that she repeats throughout her routine life: ‘Hasta mañana, si Dios quiere’ (‘Until tomorrow, God willing’). However, Jacobo arrives to his workshop the next day and finds himself alone.
Irene Depetris Chauvin
1. Whisky won awards at various festivals, among others at those of Huelva, Havana, Lima, Tokyo, and Greece. It won a Goya in Spain and also the Prix du Regard Original at Cannes. Like 25 Watts (2001), Stoll and Rebella’s first film, Whisky had a good public reception and paved the way for La perrera (2005), Acné (2007) and Gigante (2008), first films by other directors that were also produced by Control Z Films, the production house for the Rebella-Stoll duo.
2. In an interview, the director, Juan Pablo Rebella, admitted that he found that visual concept for Whisky in the graphic novel ‘Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth’. See: ‘Whisky, de Juan Pablo Rebella y Pablo Stoll’, Junio de 2004, ‘Como Hacer Cine’. Available at www.comohacercine.com/ articulo.php?id_art=706&id_cat = 3.
3. Uruguay is a very small country with just three million people situated between the two biggest countries in South America: Argentina and Brazil. In his reading of the film, Adrián Singer refers to what Héctor Achúgar defines as ‘país petizo’ (dwarf country), a concept that embodies a particular Uruguayan culture of impotence, as if the country sees itself as destined to be insignificant. This concept helps Singer to explain the resignation revealed in the film in the character of Jacobo but also in the use of the static camera emphasising the stagnation of Uruguay.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Uruguay, Germany, Argentina, Spain. Production Company: Pandora Filmproduktion, Ctrl Z Films, Rizoma Films, Wanda Visión S.A. Directors: Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll. Producer: Fernando Epstein. Screenwriters: Gonzalo Delgado, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll. Cinematographer: Bárbara Álvarez. Music: Pequeña Orquesta Reincidentes. Editor: Fernando Epstein. Cast: Andrés Pazos (Jacobo), Mirella Pascual (Marta), Jorge Bolani (Herman), Ana Katz (Newly married wife), Daniel Hendler (Newly married husband), Verónica Perrota (Factory worker 1), Mariana Velásquez (Factory worker 2), Dumas Lerena (Don Isaac), Damián Barrera (Andrés), Alfonso Tort (Juan Carlos), Francisca Barreira (Singer), Adrián Biniez (Dardo).]
Soledad Montañez and David Martin-Jones, ‘Cinema in Progress: New Uruguayan Cinema’, Screen, Vol. 50, No. 3, 2009, pp. 334–40.
Adrián Singer, ‘Influence of the Italian Neorealism on Uruguayan Contemporary Cinema’, Iberoamerica Global, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2010, pp. 36–52.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.