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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The time to 'Whisky' a go! go!


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: Portuguese
Opens April 29
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Whisky" is a movie that inspires even the most case-hardened cranks such as myself to try and invent a life-affirming proverb or two. Something along the lines of: "Happiness is not the point. Hopefulness is." (I'm gonna get that printed on a T-shirt tommorow). Or how about: "Breaking out of routine, however uncomfortable, is ultimately rejuvenating." (I'll get that one done too). Oh . . . sigh. I feel almost glad to be alive.

News photo
Andres Pazos and Mirella Pascual in "Whisky"

Which is kind of weird, considering the fact that the three main characters in "Whisky" are between 50 and 65, and neither they nor the filmmakers make any attempt to conceal their cragginess. The deep crevasses in their faces and expressions set in lines of permanent resignation indicate more than just age. Some of them speak of an utter ordinariness, of lives not lived to the hilt, of passion and tragedy that wasn't fully experienced. And yet, the story of "Whisky" is a grand (if quiet) celebration of life, told with a deep maturity and the knowledge that comes with late middle age.

The surprise is that the perky, sprightly filmmaker duo -- Uruguayans Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll -- are both just 30. "For some reason we thought of shooting a droll film about 60-year-old guys. And as we went along, we realized that their lives and ours weren't so different," it says in the production notes. Really? Who knows how ideas spark up in filmmakers' heads. We'll probably never know, but at least we can bask in the pleasurable knowledge that such works are made . . . and then released here in Japan. "Whisky" won awards both in Cannes and the Tokyo International Film Festival last year (picking up the Grand Prix at the latter), and had Yasujiro Ozu been on the jury, he would have been fuming with jealousy.

"Whisky" is the story of a loose, undefined menage a trois of two 60-ish men and a not-much-younger woman. The two men are brothers who haven't clapped eyes on each other for 20 years -- Herman (Jorge Bolani) is the younger and runs a sock factory in Brazil, while Jacopo (Andres Pazos) is the senior, and in the same trade in Uruguay.

The story opens with Jacopo going to work in the morning; his is a routine that seems set in cement. After a solitary breakfast at a neighborhood cafe, he walks over to his tiny factory where, in front of the closed shutter his assistant, Marta ( Mirella Pascual), stands waiting. Theirs is a relationship defined by the custom and tradition of many years: a little rigid, completely impersonal, exchanging conversations that consist solely of terse, work-related sentences.

During the day Jacopo holes up in his miniscule office and goes through receipts while Marta works with and oversees three women workers as they make socks. This equilibrium shifts when Jacopo tells Herman to fly in and attend a ceremony to erect a gravestone for their late mother. Out of the blue, he asks Marta to pretend to be his wife for the duration of Herman's stay. Marta (a woman of few words), calmly says yes. She even suggests that the pair take a picture together for Jacopo's living room to complete the illusion. At the photographer's place, she takes his arm as they pose, and, on cue, says, "Whisky" (the South American equivalent of "cheese"), as their hardened features briefly collapse into smiles.

Herman turns out to be a breezy, jovial guy whose socks are markedly more colorful (and of better quality) than Jacopo's. He immediately chats up Marta as Jacopo remains his stolid, unmelting self, a slave to his tight-ass bachelor routines. Herman proposes taking the pair on a trip to a resort and after much coaxing, Jacopo finally agrees.

Away from the city and the sock factory, Marta begins to loosen up. She dresses in brighter colors and occasionally laughs. In the process, the brothers' relationship shifts and changes ever so subtly -- Jacopo remains as silent and unreachable as ever, but it's clear there's a certain turmoil bubbling beneath the deadpan exterior. Herman (perhaps because he suspects the truth about Marta and his brother) drops conventional politeness, flirts more openly with Marta, and even struts with an air of proprietorship. All this has an extraordinary effect on Marta -- she gradually morphs from a pinched, joyless factory worker into a attractive woman, quietly and suddenly aware of her power of allure.

The sexuality in "Whisky" is so muted and subtle (like Ozu's works) that it will probably take a second viewing to discern and appreciate the exact moments at which it surfaces. But even on first viewing there's no doubt it is there -- like the pulse of an elderly person, faint but steady and stubborn. Forming a nice contrast is a young newlywed couple on their honeymoon, staying in the same hotel as the trio. For them, love and sex is a prerequisite rather than a privilege, something that can be renewed with each day. But for Marta and Jacopo, and even Herman, such casualness is unthinkable. Beneath their impassive expressions, there are plots and schemes to kindle the flame of romance, and they all know that at their age, intimacy is a tremendous and unlikely gift. The brilliance of "Whisky" is that all three characters are too cool and sly ever to admit it; their desperation never surfaces and that makes it all the more real.

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