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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Moneychanger’

A continent-hopping period dramedy that’s not very funny and never catches fire.

Uruguayan auteur Federico Veiroj (“The Apostate,” “Belmonte”) broadens his usual intimate dramatic scope to diminishing returns for his fifth feature, “The Moneychanger,” a continent-hopping dramedy that’s not very funny and never catches fire. Adapted from a novella by compatriot Juan Enrique Gruber, the period (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) tale centers on the eponymous character, an amoral currency exchanger, who winds up laundering some of the dirtiest money in Latin America during an era of military dictatorships, political expediency, brutality and corruption. Beaucoup festival travel is booked, but theatrical play is likely limited to Spanish-language territories.

The moneychanger of the title is the innocuous Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler, whose playing seems much too mild), who also provides cynical voiceover narration, as the story jumps forward and back in time and moves between Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina and back again. Brause recounts how he got his start in the business of capital flight, learning from his boss, the refined Schwensteiger (Luís Machín), a classical music-loving gent who eventually becomes his father-in-law. Although Schwensteiger has some scruples, Brause has none and willingly forges his chief’s signature to accommodate self-serving politicos.

Even though Brause takes a fall and serves prison time for his crime, it doesn’t stop him from taking over Schwensteiger’s firm and taking on a less and less savory clientele. A trip to Brazil puts him in touch with Moacyr (Germán De Silva), a cold-blooded contract killer. And there’s the Argentine, “Mr. Harry,” who leaves him with an enormous amount of American dollars in battered suitcases. But when regimes change and a certain Bompland (Benjamín Vicuña) arrives demanding the stash, Brause compromises himself further by commissioning an even bigger crime.

In between the various financial scams, helmer Veiroj returns to Brause’s peculiar, out-of-tune domestic life with stolid, impossible-to-read, recorder-playing wife Gudrun Schwensteiger (expressionless Dolores Fonzi, who acts as if she is in another film entirely) and their two not particularly talented kids. Although the workaholic Brause says he wants money to enjoy the finer things in life, the uncurious Gudrun initially shows no interest and is shocked when Brause first forges her father’s signature … on her school report. Then, suddenly, without any character development, she’s enjoying shop-until-you-drop trips to Buenos Aires and decorating larger and larger homes in Montevideo. Although the pair appear to despise each other (and the actors display no chemistry), Gudrun is unwilling to divorce. Indeed, she tortures her heart-attack-prone hubby (or perhaps merely tries to improve his health) by forbidding anyone to serve him coffee, in what becomes a too-frequently repeated joke.

In other hands, the screenplay might represent incendiary satire, but Veiroj fails to find the style, pace and tone that would best suit the material. Sure, there are some mildly amusing bits along the way, such as a scene in which Brause’s elderly former prison neighbor dies before telling him where he keeps his safe deposit key, or the framing device that reminds viewers that moneychangers had bad reputations even in biblical times, or even Brause’s taste for German choral singing, but Veiroj always opts for gentle absurdity when something sharper is required.

The production package offers re-creations of period buildings, cars and clothing but is otherwise unremarkable. The punning Spanish title translates as “Thus Spoke the Moneychanger.”

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