2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: In “The Moneychanger (Asi Hablo el Cambista),” the titular character is a hapless halfwit whose astuteness can never quite keep up with his criminal instincts. It is Uruguay’s 18th ever submission to the Academy Awards category now known as “Best International Feature Film.” Sandwiched in the 1970s between two larger, more ruthless neighbors (Argentina and Brazil), the moneychanger aims high with lofty dreams of power and glory, but falls short, into mostly pointless corruption with no lasting benefit. It is Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s self-deprecating, comedic analogy about the country itself, a film’s resolution of the “not knowing whether to cry or to laugh” conundrum decidedly in the favor of joviality. While “The Moneychanger” may ultimately feel pedestrian and even lacking passion, that, too, is likely symbolic of its titular character and of the nation he is meant to represent.
The film’s title refers to Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) a well-meaning young man who begins to work at a money exchange business for an old German man. Humberto is motivated enough, but the sad fact of the matter is that he likes cash, has expensive tastes, and wants to come into it as easily and quickly as possible. It is the 1950s and Humberto, green around the edges, and still has stars in his eyes about what the promising future could hold. When he meets his boss’s imperious daughter Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), he awkwardly courts and then marries her, still believing—naively, as it later turns out—that happiness is attainable and reaching one’s dreams is possible.
But Humberto’s lesser instincts continue to get the better of—and eventually overcome—him. His boss (now father-in-law) has a spotless reputation as a currency exchanger and banker. He refuses to have anything at all to do with banking for elected officials, whom he correctly views as hopelessly corrupt. Humberto, though, just cannot help himself. He begins laundering money for petty officers, and, later, much more dangerously, agrees to hide improbably large sums belonging to Argentinian militants in foreign banks. Life and limb are in peril, yes, but Humberto wants to play with the big boys and belong to the club.
What follows is a mostly predictable, not quite exciting tale of a dim-witted man whose talents, even as a crook, never quite live up to his ambitions. He is cornered repeatedly by foes, including other criminals, his own clients, and the authorities, and repeatedly gets himself into hotter and hotter waters. What makes this seemingly tepid tale so likable, though, is that “The Moneychanger” has a clever script that carefully draws out a larger picture. This is a sorrowful, but tender view of Uruguay itself, of its desires, its ambitions, its motivations, and, ultimately, its failings.
The first latent clues that Veiroj and his co-screenwriters are on to something quirky come when Humberto meets Brazilian thugs and racketeers, or when he encounters self-assured, overly confident, dashing Argentinians. Both of those countries experienced military coups and dictatorships of their own during this middle phase of the Cold War, with injustice manifesting itself in different shades across their borders. In Brazil, represented by the ruthless figure of Moacyr (German da Silva), corporatist corruption led to the destruction of rain forests and the massacre of indigenous populations. In Argentina, portrayed here as two idealist but violent leftists, it was an intra-class struggle that led to bloodshed and bullets. If you know history you know how the story of Humberto “The Moneychanger” ends—both dictatorships eventually ended, but there is no question that one was friendlier to Uruguay as it was threatened by the other.
We Latin Americans are a study in contrasts and juxtapositions, and nowhere is that more evident than in our competing feelings towards the mother countries. Most of us will go to the mat defending national honor against perceived foreign assault, but at the same time take a dim view of different aspects of our cultures, particularly of government. This well-intentioned and tender duality is on full display in how Veiroj treats his own country. Uruguay is like Humberto: well-intentioned, at times misguided, and unable to go toe-to-toe with its bigger, bully neighbors when it comes to corruption nor otherwise. And apparently the men cannot stop wandering, as Humberto does, persistently, quite separate from Gudrun’s treatment of him as a silly dope. Would that we all had the confidence to self-deprecate in the amusing way “The Moneychanger” does.
What of the film’s Oscar chances? Slim to none, in my estimation. For one, the Eurocentric committees that come up with the shortlist for this award are unlikely to recognize the subtle, underlying message behind Veiroj’s story. To them, this will be nothing more than a story about a simple and sometimes oafish man, one that transcends little and discovers nothing. It would be asking too much of the much more literalist Academy members that typically select finalists for this category to recognize an unpretentious but affectionate story about an entire country and its people. Which leads to the second problem: unlike the successfully corrupt, typically older gentlemen of past winners with whom the old boys’ club could identify (think of Italy’s “The Great Beauty” and its central character), Humberto is not someone for these voters to root for. Humberto rouses your sympathies because, despite his attempts at being bad, he is not bad, he is just misguided while somehow meaning well. But this makes him a dope, not an anti-hero, hardly the stuff that has won accolades from this group in the past.
It’s too bad because “The Moneychanger” is a highly effective film. It masterfully achieves exactly what it sets itself out to do: shake its head at its people’s own failings, at their own incongruities, while warmly reminding viewers of the nation’s charm to begin with. Hopefully, better-informed viewers will appreciate this even if the Academy likely doesn’t.
“The Moneychanger” is Uruguay’s official selection for the Academy Awards, will play at the New York Film Festival and awaits U.S. distribution
Check out the “The Moneychanger” Trailer Out of TIFF Here!