All the Small Things
Jeff Reichert on Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s Whisky
I know little about the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, the tiny nation of a few million people that produced filmmakers Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll. Casual research suggests that Uruguay continually ranks high on quality of life metrics, features little of the political corruption that plagues other Southern American nations, has a strong economy (though one hit by the same downturns plaguing the rest of the world of late), and wide personal freedoms. Middle-class boys with movie dreams sprouting up from a middle-class country most would be hard-pressed to locate on a map are not necessarily the stuff of cinematic legend; this pair didn’t exactly emerge fully formed onto the festival circuit from, say, the far-off expanse of the Kazakh steppes carrying heavy, exotic cultural baggage in film canisters. The two low-key films Rebella and Stoll made together, 25 Watts (2001) and Whisky (2004), exist in largely anonymous urban spaces; even though the pair has been touted as leaders of new Uruguayan cinema (a notion which Stoll rejects), their films feel almost as if they could have been made anywhere—but this isn’t a criticism. Their choice to put their own spin on a recognizable brand of cinematic grammar employed by filmmakers around the globe—stringent in its camera movements, dry in its humor—suggests at least, that Uruguay’s capital has some good video stores.
25 Watts, the first of their two joint efforts, follows a trio of gangly youths poking around Montevideo, drinking, screwing, and generally causing minor trouble. It’s the kind of film that’s packed with event even though the characters themselves seem to be intent on doing as little as possible. Watts wallows to a certain extent in turn-of-the-century slacker chic, but is buoyed by a wicked comic sense and nicely grimy black-and-white cinematography; those looking for scenic Montevideo should look elsewhere—25 Watts is more concerned with documenting street corners, garages, and cluttered apartments than monuments and classy neighborhoods. It’s not as if Rebella and Stoll have produced the Uruguayan Clerks, mind you—their first collaboration feels more indebted in mood and style to the downbeat odes of Jarmusch and Kaurismäki. Like in those filmmakers’ works, their camera is usually fixed, their characters’ actions choreographed stage-like within a still frame (though Rebella and Stoll memorably go off-tripod for a few manic POV sequences), their focus squarely on the minor and major absurdities and injustices of middle and working class existence. 25 Watts could be displaced into Jarmusch’s Lower East Side or Kaurismäki’s Helsinki without a great deal of updating.
For all its modesty, 25 Watts won a surprising amount of worldwide acclaim, perhaps because of its emergence from what was, at the time, a largely dormant moviemaking scene. Rebella and Stoll returned three years later and won two prizes at Cannes for Whisky, a similarly tiny and aesthetically controlled film. Whisky’s hero, Jacobo Keller (played by the worn and hangdog Andrés Pazos), is a dour aging gentleman who lives alone and runs a factory that churns out drab utilitarian socks. 25 Watts’ gang of lunkheads would likely have mocked the man and his livelihood, maybe even pulled a prank on him; Rebella and Stoll hone in on the rigorously maintained routine of the factory with loving reverence. Repeated near-Bressonian sequences track Jacobo as he opens the plant: shots of hands flipping switches and machines whirring to life establish a cinematic rhythm that propels the film through its first half. Waiting at the gate when Jacobo arrives is the similarly silent, downcast Marta (Mirella Pascual). The longtime employer and employee speak little to each other as they begin the sock-making, and they don’t converse much more over the course of the film.
The first factory sequence quickly establishes the serene mundanity of its characters’ lives—there’s something almost zenlike in their seeming lack of yearning or striving, their slow meditative movements. (The maturation of Rebella and Stoll’s psychological acuity from 25 Watts and Whisky is immediately clear.) When we meet Jacobo and Marta it is close to the one-year anniversary of Jacobo’s mother’s death. That day, Jacobo breaks the afternoon routine for a trip to the post office to mail a letter to his brother Hermann (Jorge Bolani) inviting him to come from Brazil for their mother’s matzevah (a Jewish headstone ceremony). That same evening, for reasons unknown to us, Jacobo subtly solicits Marta to perform as his spouse while his brother is in town—he never says the word “wife” itself, he just suggests it might be a good idea if she stayed with him for a little while. Little flashes of excitement play across Pascual’s doughy face as she realizes the nature of the request. When Jacobo takes Marta home to his undecorated, cramped apartment, an oxygen tank leaned against the wall of a spartan room suggests some long slow suffering took place here. The two don’t remark upon this obviously defining event, but Rebella and Stoll don’t need them to—they’ve highlighted it via clean visual synecdoche. While Jacobo attends the matzevah, Marta arranges the house and hides the tank away.
In advance of Hermann’s arrival, the pair has some photos taken (the film’s title comes from the Uruguayan version of saying “cheese” before the shutter snaps; a shot of the two of them waiting for the picture to be taken, smiling together, happy, is achingly believable) and Jacobo produces his mother’s wedding band for Marta to wear. The ruse in place, they wait. Hermann proves to be the perfect narrative device—he’s younger than his brother, more successful (he, too, runs a sock factory, and in a sly gag brings his own samples as a gift; they’re colorful and gaudy to Jacobo’s strict brown issues), has a family back home, and is more gregarious. Clearly all reasons Marta has been enlisted for the performance. Jacobo grimaces his way through the visit, but Marta is immediately charmed; the spectacle of the three of them attempting to dine together rests at a pinnacle of comic discomfort. Hermann clearly acknowledges his older brother’s resentment at being saddled with their mother’s care and desires reconciliation. Jacobo seems entirely unwilling to accept even the slightest olive branch or even recognize when one is being offered.
Hermann’s visit and the lead-up to it occupy the first half of the Whisky. Things take a turn for the seaside baroque when Hermann insists the trio continue spending time together and take a voyage to Piriápolis, a crumbling resort town modeled after classic European spas. Jacobo insists he’s unable to leave the factory, but the very next edit suggests otherwise as a grand vista unfolds and a small vehicle speeds across the landscape. This wide-open shot signals a shift in the film, and once they’re in Piriápolis, the mood brightens noticeably—the three play air hockey (take special note of a shot of Jacobo’s hand closing over Marta’s as he teaches her to play, his obvious zeal at beating his brother and Hermann’s clear joy in allowing the beating—the scene masterfully unpacks character), gamble, attend a karaoke bar presided over by a 12-year-old female singer. Some of the youthful strangeness of 25 Watts seeps through these sequences, and the film’s neat bifurcation suggests a pair of filmmakers gradually becoming fascinated with larger questions of narrative structure.
Whisky grows warmer, but the relationships grow more complicated. An underplayed will-they or won’t-they dynamic emerges as Jacobo and Marta must share a room with only one bed (back home, Jacobo separated the two beds Marta pushed together for show). By now it’s become clear that the lonely woman longs for the lonely man. When Marta takes a dip in the hotel pool and loses “her” wedding band, her resultant panic stems from a deeper place than the loss of an object owned by her boss. Later, while Jacobo sulks an evening away, Marta goes out with with Hermann (Stoll and Rebella quietly suggest the possibility of a love triangle emerging); when Jacobo discovers her missing, his jealously is palpable. It might spoil the end to say that none of the potential couplings are to be, but Rebella and Stoll would have ruined it themselves by having Jacobo and Marta erase years of habit by entering into some kind of tenuous congress.
Are there larger questions of national identity at work through the characters of Jacobo and Hermann? Does Uruguay harbor some inferiority in the face of its (much) larger neighbor? Does Brazil feel some guilt for its economy surging as Uruguay’s has stalled? Does this explain away the filmmakers’ emphasis on the two localities? Or are we just watching a film about familiarly lonely people connecting and disconnecting in a style that’s been used by filmmakers the world over? (Duck Season, the first film by Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke, who is discussed elsewhere in this issue, features a strikingly similar aesthetic and sensibility.) There’s always a limit to how much an artist (or pair of them) can be asked to speak for an entire nation. For his part, Stoll has said, “The idea that [these two films] were ‘the Uruguayan cinema’ is due in part to the negligence of journalists and the lack of creativity of some critics. Movies are just movies—nothing more. I think the worst that can happen to the nascent Uruguayan cinema is to be driven by prototypes.”
Whisky and 25 Watts are modest in intent and means, and that’s just fine—the last thing world cinema needs is more puffed-up self-importance. Given the filmmakers’ artistic growth over the two films, one wonders where the pair might have gone next. As his brief career barely registered here in the U.S., Juan Pablo Rebella’s untimely passing in 2006 will still be news to many. Stoll has continued working and completed the silent musical documentary Hiroshima in 2009. You won’t learn much about Uruguay by watching their work, won’t find any historical episodes charting crucial moments on the nation’s march to independence and democracy. You will learn that the small country produced a pair of very talented filmmakers, outsized talents in relation to their nation’s international prominence. Stoll might reject the idea of Whisky standing for Uruguayan cinema, but he and his partner can’t help being a part of it.