Cinephiles fell hard for Federico Veiroj’s second feature, A Useful Life (2010), when it first wound its way through the festival circuit. Jorge Jellinek, the internationally respected film critic who passed away this summer, plays a programmer struggling to ward off the impending closure of a cinematheque. Filmed in color, printed in black and white, and masked to box the frame into the Academy ratio, A Useful Life was shot in Montevideo’s Cinemateca Uruguaya. In his report for Cineaste on the 2011 edition of the Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival, Dennis West noted that it “came as no surprise” when the film won the FIPRESCI Prize awarded by the International Federation of Film Critics. “After all,” wrote West, “this small, engaging comedy offers an affectionate look at the decline of film culture as it used to be, back when artistically important films mattered in a given nation’s overall cultural context.”
Critical response to the three features Veiroj has made since has been warm but not hot. In Variety, Scott Tobias described The Apostate (2015), in which a college student declares his intention to leave the Catholic Church, as “a slight letdown.” Last year’s Belmonte fared better. It is, as Michael Sicinski wrote in Cinema Scope, “a film about a male artist who values his family life as much as his art, if not more. It’s not only refreshing: it’s genuinely sexy.” The Moneychanger, with Daniel Hendler as Humberto Brause, a man who buys and sells—and launders—cash, premiered last month in Toronto’s Platform competition and screens tomorrow and Thursday at the New York Film Festival.
Right up front, Brause freely admits in voice-over narration that Jesus was right to clear the Temple of the money changers, who are indeed, he says, “the root of all evil.” In the mid-1950s—the story will stretch into the mid-’70s—Brause learns his trade from Sr. Schweinsteiger (Luis Machín), marries his daughter, Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), and proceeds to launder, as Alissa Simon puts it in Variety, “some of the dirtiest money in Latin America during an era of military dictatorships, political expediency, brutality, and corruption.” Simon sees Veiroj aiming for comedy here but finds that The Moneychanger is “not very funny and never catches fire.”
Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell suggests that “the jaunty tone feels akin to French crime sagas of the 1950s, which swayed more into the sinister side of things.” Cinematographer Arauco Hernández Holz, who’s also cowritten this adaptation of a 1979 novella by Juan Enrique Gruber with Veiroj and Martín Mauregui, “captures Montevideo as a crumbling façade, an unassuming free-for-all, which was, as we’re told, sandwiched between and influenced by the economic turmoil of Argentina and Brazil during this period.”
Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Keith Uhlich observes that “at macro and micro levels, and despite his weak-willed neuroticism, Brause is irredeemably venal.” For Amber Wilkinson in Screen, the “fact that he is such an innocuous figure, unable to even order a coffee seemingly anywhere in the city thanks to his wife’s interventions, makes the lengths to which he is willing to go to protect his money all the more ridiculous.” At Slant, Peter Goldberg finds that the caricature weakens the film. “Throughout,” he writes, “The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity.” Ultimately, “he’s nothing more than a worm.” Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov suggests that anyone who has “ever known a smart, ethical person who buried their conscience” and went for the tainted cash knows that “there’s a familiar form of depression that comes with that decision—that, perhaps most clearly, is what The Moneychanger conveys.”
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