Writers & Company

Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj mixes deadpan comedy with existential drama in his prize-winning movies

The South American director spoke with Eleanor Wachtel during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Frederico Veiroj spoke with Eleanor Wachtel during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. (CBC)
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Federico Veiroj's offbeat character studies have earned him international acclaim as one of Uruguay's top screenwriter-directors. His latest film, The Moneychanger, had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Based on a novel by Juan Enrique Gruber, it's about a money launderer in 1970s Montevideo during the turbulent time of the military dictatorship. A tough look at ambition and complicity, the story follows the protagonist's criminal activities from Buenos Aires, to the Amazon of Brazil and the banks of Switzerland.  

Veiroj's previous films also revolve around unconventional characters. The Apostate is a sensitive, at times surreal, portrait of a young man in Madrid who's determined to sever ties to the Catholic church. Belmonte focuses on a talented painter in Montevideo who's going through an existential crisis. And in A Useful Life, a long-time cinema employee must venture out of the dark when the theatre is forced to close. 

Federico Veiroj spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Uruguay born and raised

"Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay, a small country between Argentina and Brazil. It's the capital where everything happens. In terms of culture, economics and politics, we share a lot in relation to our big neighbours. We depend on them a lot. With Argentina we share the language and we share the Spanish accent. I became a filmmaker not because I used to watch Uruguayan cinema — because that wasn't a thing — but because I watched a lot of European, American and Asian films.

I became a filmmaker not because I used to watch Uruguayan cinema — because that wasn't a thing — but because I watched a lot of European, American and Asian films.- Frederico Veiroj

"At the time, there was a cinematheque in Uruguay. I was very young when I started to go there. But this was during the time of the Uruguayan dictatorship and they used to have fights around censorship. They had to do things like smuggle films into the country. It was not easy for culture in general. Many artists had to leave."

A scene from the film The Moneychanger, directed by Federico Veiroj and based on the novel of the same name by Juan Enrique Gruber. (TIFF)

Family ties

"My family was not involved in politics in the country. Jewish culture in Montevideo was not something that the dictatorship was concerned about. They were more concentrated on seeking out left wing people and anarchists. We know people that were tortured and I know people with parents who disappeared. There were 3,000 people who disappeared in Uruguay.

"But I didn't live that time of my young life thinking about those issues. It was a little bit later when I was a teenager — the dictatorship ended when I was nine years old — when I started to understand that part of my country's history."

Thus Spoke the Moneychanger 

"The novel that the film adapts is called Thus Spoke the Moneychanger in Spanish. I picked up the book because of the title; I thought it was a funny title and a play off of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

How can you like a guy who tells you he's evil right when you first meet him?- Frederico Veiroj

"I don't think it is directly related with Nietzsche in general. But what attracted me to the book was its state of thinking, which is very personal. It is very conscious of its place in the world because it is an Uruguayan author talking about these things. It looks at being the small country surrounded by the big ones — and how to be aware of and seize opportunities being the small ant that nobody watches or suspects.

"In a way, nobody needs to watch a small country like Uruguay. We used to be a secret banking destination for people who wanted to hide or launder money. It was a kind of paradise."

Evil like me

"It was not the contemporary issues that made me want to create this movie, even if it is very contemporary. Looking at the present situation in Argentina and Brazil, there is an economic issue around inflation and the devaluation of currency. But it was not only this contemporary issue that attracted me, it was the humour within the protagonist, Humberto Brause.

"He's a very difficult character to like in the film. How can you like a guy who tells you he's evil right when you first meet him? In a way, the film doesn't justify his actions, but over 90 minutes it examines how someone can turn to the wrong side."

Federico Veiroj's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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