Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 2, 2006


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

"Whisky" is a most unconventional Uruguayan film that played in art houses two years ago. Using minimalist techniques associated with the U.S. filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and Finland's Aki Kaurismaki, it tells the story of Jacobo Koller (Andrés Pazos), a sixty year old Jewish man who runs a tiny ramshackle stocking factory in Montevideo with three female employees. Two operate the ancient machines. The other is his faithful assistant Marta (Mirella Pascual), who is nearly as old as Jacobo and attends to his every need.

Jacobo's mother died a year earlier and it is now time for her unveiling, a Jewish custom that mandates the placing of a tombstone over the departed family member's grave. For this occasion, Jacobo's younger brother Herman (Jorge Bolani) will be coming up from Brazil where he runs his own stocking factory. Since Jacobo apparently feels ashamed of his bachelor existence, he persuades Marta to pretend that she is his wife during his brother's visit.

The plot has obvious similarities to "Go For Zucker," last year's film from Germany that also involves a reunion of two Jewish brothers and an element of deception, in this case one brother–a Communist and an atheist–representing himself as devout in order to satisfy the requirements of his recently departed mother's will. Unlike this film, the humor in "Whisky" is bone dry. It also does not involve farcical plot twists–the story moves along in a linear fashion not unlike the aging machines in Jacobo's workshop. Finally, there is no epiphany in the final scene as the characters reconcile with each other. The Jacobo we meet at the beginning of the film–taciturn, depressed and aloof–is the same Jacobo that we see at its conclusion.

A Ben Katchor cartoon

In many ways, the film has the same wistful but downbeat charm of Ben Katchor's cartoons. Katchor is the artist laureate of New York's Jewish past, a world of kosher restaurants, garment shops, and aging men strolling along empty streets. Directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, who share screenwriting credits with Gonzalo Delgado, are not Jewish. In explaining their motivation for making such a film, Pablo Stoll told Artificial Eye:

"We are neither 60 nor Jewish nor do we have a stocking factory. When we wrote the script, we started to realize that perhaps these characters were not much different from ourselves. That we were not altogether so far from these three types of loneliness. That they could be a projection of ourselves, of what we might be in twenty, thirty years. Behind the mask played by Jacobo, Herman and Marta, we come face to face with our fears."

The film's title is the Uruguayan version of "cheese," a word that photographers ask their subjects to say just before he takes the shot. When Marta suggests that she and Jacobo have a wedding picture taken to be placed prominently in his apartment to create the proper illusion, he agrees. When Jacobo and Marta smile for the photographer, it is practically the only time that they appear happy.

The final third of the film takes place in Piriápolis, a seaside resort that has the ambience of pre-gambling casino Atlantic City. On Herman's suggestion, the three go to the resort as the Koll family did when they were young. They pass their time walking along the beach under a gray wintry sky, listening to karaoke performances in their seedy hotel's nightclub or playing 'foosball'. When Jacobo places his hand on Marta's to show her how to play the game, it is about as close as he comes to intimacy in the entire film.

It is not too difficult to understand Jacobo's sad demeanor after learning that he lived with his aging mother as her health was failing. The apartment is filled with signs that he had to nurse her, including an oxygen tank. We also discover that Herman abandoned their home and left her care to his older brother. Jacobo's iciness toward his brother throughout the film probably flows from his sense of being betrayed.

We say probably because Jacobo is not one to reveal his feelings. Nor is Marta, who seems to accept her assignment acting as his wife with the same placid willingness as she does any task at their workplace. Ironically, it is this very distance that the filmmakers impose between their characters and the audience that makes the film challenging on its own terms. We find ourselves trying to understand what makes these unusual characters tick. Why do they act the way they do? Why is Jacobo so reluctant to open up emotionally?

Over and over again, I keep discovering that films about such marginal but interesting characters can only be made in 'marginal' countries like Uruguay, Turkey, Iran, Korea or Argentina. As Hollywood continues along in its feckless manner, playing its violin like Nero, we must turn to the barbarians at the gate for signs of true humanity.

Whisky is available now in DVD from your better video stores and on the Internet.

Whisky website: http://www.whisky.com.uy/

Ben Katchor website: http://www.katchor.com/


  1. I suspect you’ve seen this via Lenin’s Tomb: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1745489,00.html

    Comment by Poulod — April 4, 2006 @ 2:50 am

  2. Ruby

    I am Petra, very interesting article that contained the information I was searching for in Google, thanks.

    Trackback by Ruby — April 21, 2006 @ 7:34 pm

  3. Not seen the film but Proyect’s powerful prose has taken it to my mind’s eye. I am a Jew who happens to live in Buenos Aires and it looks like both the directors and the critic have grasped the general mood that prevails in today’s Uruguay, a country that has been forced to mass emigration for almost half a century now. It may be only reasonable to see it through Jewish nostalgia.

    By the way, and since Proyect and the film comment on Piriápolis: Piriápolis was founded by an Utopian socialist in Uruguay, Pedro Piria, during the high years of the Uruguayan beef-exporting “South American Switzerland”. It was thought of as a resort for the lower classes of the society. Some of its initial features had some faint relation with the ideas of Ebenezer Howerd and William Morris.

    Though it never actually fulfilled Piria’s expectations, it did become an alternative destination for lower middle classes, both Uruguayan and Argentinean, during the 40s and 50s as against the ultra-oligarchic and of course out of any normal person’s reach Punta del Este.

    By the way, Piriápolis is NOT a seaside resort, but a riverside resort: you are still on the banks of the Río de la Plata.

    Comment by Néstor — May 26, 2006 @ 2:14 pm

  4. […] a pious Jew and the other a Communist sportswriter. It also evokes the 2004 Uruguayan movie “Whiskey” whose main character was a 60 year old Jewish businessman who is organizing the unveiling of […]

    Pingback by Cargo 200; My Mexican Shivah « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 29, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

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