A whimsical piece of deadpan drollery, “Whisky” plays like Aki Kaurismaki, South American style. Tale of two minimally communicative co-workers whose lives are unintentionally but decisively altered by an outsider gives Uruguay, a rarely heard-from nation on the cinematic map, a good flag carrier at fests and in specialized arthouse release worldwide. Second feature, after the 2001 fest fave “25 Watts,” by the writing-directing team of Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll copped both the runner-up “Regard Original” jury prize and the Fipresci critics award for entries in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.
Set in a deliberately depopulated Montevideo made to seem very old and drained of life, tale initially devotes itself to establishing the unchanging daily rituals of its two central characters. The tall, gravely serious Jacobo Koller (Andres Pazos) runs a small sock factory, where his manager, starchy middle-aged Marta (Mirella Pascual), supervises two younger female employees. Every day, Jacobo and Marta meet at 7:30 a.m. to open the plant, exchange the same few courtesies and embark upon the same routine, but never do they break form to discuss anything remotely personal.
But this fatigued, twilight world of repetitive work and solitary downtime is to be broken by the imminent arrival of Jacobo’s younger brother, Herman (Jorge Bolani). Living in Brazil, Herman missed his mother’s funeral the year before but is coming in for the gravestone-setting ceremony. Jacobo gets it into his head that he’d like his family-man brother to believe that he’s now married, so he politely proposes to Marta that she pose as his wife during the short time Herman will be in town.
This ruse, which has no apparent rationale other than to relieve Jacobo of any pressure to make excuses to his brother, lights the slow-burning fuse of the film’s gentle comedy. Jacobo and Marta have pictures of themselves taken to decorate his small apartment — a sad, untended abode that needs an urgent decorative upgrade to convince as a couple’s residence.
Although hardly a fashion plate, Herman fortunately turns out to be a livelier character than his brother, an upbeat, chatty fellow who unwittingly forces his hosts out of their comically exaggerated calcification. Jacobo and Marta need to improvise so as not to contradict one another about their honeymoon and other “shared” activities, and while the trio doesn’t exactly have a riotous time together, they all get on agreeably enough for Herman to talk the others into an extended holiday at a seaside resort.
Off-season at chilly Piriapolis, they check into a nearly empty old luxury hotel. Again, the good times are minimal to the point of desperation, but small events assume major importance as Marta begins to thaw out and express something resembling a personality and will of her own; she modestly begins using makeup and dressing up, plays verbal games that reveal a sense of humor and may well be experiencing a romantic (re)birth, even if this new man in her life is by his own account happily married with kids. For his part, the still withdrawn Jacobo momentarily comes out of his shell to gamble everything on one spin at the roulette table, with quietly momentous results.
Establishing a sense of artistic rigor with rigidly fixed camera setups, formal cutting and a parsimonious way with character revelation, Rebella and Stoll prove very skilled at conveying gradual but major change behind the backdrop of minor everyday activities and banal conversation. Similarly, they milk significant situational humor via understatement and the protraction of odd or uncomfortable circumstances, even to the point of generating chuckles from the difficulty of capturing the towering Pazos and the squat Pascual in the same frame in an elevator scene.
Helmers are well aided by their three leading actors. Pazos and Pascual are so tamped down that laughter is virtually the only plausible response to their absurd inexpressiveness, while Bolani provides just enough juice to jumpstart the emotional currents.
Production boasts a simple but well-carpentered look. Title refers to the word used by the characters instead of “cheese” to get people to smile when taking a photograph.