Federico Veiroj finds triumph in life under the pain of creativity
Review by Young Film Critic Pablo Staricco
Fine. Not great, not bad. Just fine. That is how things seem to be going for the middle-aged artist Javier Belmonte, the main character from the fourth and latest feature by the Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj.
But as Japanese sensation, Marie Kondo may ask: can professional success be fulfilling if it's not generating even the smallest spark of personal joy? In Belmonte, screened at the 48th IFFR's Voices Programme, that seems to be the conundrum hunting the painter, who is also dealing with raising his young daughter while her ex-wife is a few weeks away from having a new baby. With another man, that is.
BelmonteFederico Veiroj IFFR 2019 75′
At the age of 43, painter Javier Belmonte can no longer camouflage his fear of life and insecurity with bohemian bravura.
What’s wrong with Belmonte that makes him repel people with his divergent behaviour, even risking losing his young daughter? He wants both a free artist's life and normal family life, but on the other hand he doesn't. The director of A Useful Life and The Apostate takes warm, ironic pleasure in wrong-footing the viewer.
Veiroj, who in the last decade has become one of Uruguay's most prolific directors (something unusual in a land were sophomore films are a rare exception), returns to Rotterdam having crafted a small and contained profile of an artist using three of the tropes most present in his oeuvre: endearment, dry humour, and playing with docufiction storytelling.
Javier Belmonte is in fact portrayed by a real painter and close collaborator of Veiroj, the artist and screenwriter Gonzalo Delgado. In the Latin American film industry, Delgado is known for his work behind the camera. Not only as a writer/director −he debuted as a filmmaker with 2016's dramedy Las toninas van al este− but mostly as the art supervisor and production designer of 25 Watts and Whisky, two features responsible for the renaissance of Uruguayan cinema at the beginning of the new century. Veiroj was also involved in this resurgence.
Almost two decades have passed since then and those young cinephiles are now full-fledged adults. Manhood, both in Belmonte and the previous work of Veiroj, is one more raveled with the anxieties of making your own decisions rather than the apparent freedom that comes with maturity. Even Belmonte, a sometimes unpleasant protagonist full of irony and an inactive drive, cannot seem to get a hold on aging, as his relentless effort for trying to pull off a leather jacket that reeks of nostalgia show. And while he is able to make a decent living by selling his own paintings to high society thirsty women and has a big retrospective coming up in one of Montevideo’s biggest visual art museums, there is still not a glimpse of bliss in his eyes while he deals with his career.
Happiness has a name in Belmonte's life and it is Celeste, his daughter played by Olivia Molinaro in her film debut. With a story so focused on fatherhood and manliness −even the painter's art, done by Delgado himself, consists mostly on naked, colorful and agonizing men−, the female characters Celeste and her mother Jeanne (Jeannette Sauksteliskis) are the ones who give Belmonte, and by that extension the movie itself, its emotional core.
El apóstataFederico Veiroj IFFR 2016 80′
Also in his first Spanish production, one can recognise the amiably ironic and occasionally absurd hand of the Uruguayan Veiroj (A Useful Life). A young man in Madrid (co-writer Alvaro Ogolla) wants to be struck from the lists of the Catholic Church. Alongside the problems that gives him, he wrestles with his family, life and love.
Veiroj and Delgado's script balance Belmonte's artsy and awkward endeavours through the streets of Montevideo with more intimate moments, such as him convincing Celeste not to be jealous of her future brother or negotiating to ask his ex-wife for more time with their daughter. And for a man who has to find in canvas the only way to truly express himself, talking about his own feelings can be an excruciating task. though one really entertaining for the audience.
Veiroj once again appeals to create invisible cataclysms that make his characters raise life-changing questions. There was the chase for true love in his troubled teen protagonist from his debut Acné; the disruption of the routine of one old cinema worker in La vida util and the crisis of faith from a young Catholic in El apóstata. In Belmonte, the character's pain is very present throughout but always hidden, either in his vivid paintings or in his daily activities. In one scene inside a classical music concert in the Teatro Solis, red and green lights fall on Belmonte’s face while he cannot seem to control a single tear that drops from his eye. Art is literally covering him completely and he just cannot control his emotions.
As a film devoted to an artist's life, Belmonte deeply focuses not only on painting but also in the architecture where the story is rooted. Veiroj and his team of DPs Arauco Hernández and Analía Polliostated dive into a psychogeographical shoot and find complexly structured shots that put the protagonist as the center of strange and playful scenes, surrounding him in a closet with furs or hiding him in a line of columns. Veiroj has stated before he has felt an impulse to show his love for his city in a way it hasn't been shown before, and they may be some unexpected beauty to be found by a foreign eye while looking at the streets of Montevideo.
Belmonte is one of Veiroj's shortest film to date with a length of 75 minutes, but the director makes most of his time in this slice of life of a story, that also plays wonderfully as the first introduction to his filmography (Both El apóstata and La vida útil are available at IFFR Unleashed). With a new film coming up right around the corner in 2019 or 2020 −an economic drama set in the ’80s starring Uruguay's indie darling Daniel Handler−, you may wonder how is Veiroj doing nowadays. The answer would be great. Just great. Thanks for asking.
La vida útilFederico Veiroj IFFR 2011 67′
Ode to love and a melancholy lament about fading film culture go hand in hand in this old-fashioned precise black-and-white jewel. About a man whose talents seem to be becoming out of place in this modern era, when his job at the Uruguayan cinematheque is under threat.