Films have had a love affair with crime dating back over a century, but the misdeeds showcased are usually a flashy kind that’s grown rare in reality – gangsters, gunplay, and getaways. However, since the financial collapse of 2008, there’s been a realization that white-collar crime often shapes our world to a greater extent, and a subsequent effort by filmmakers has been made to explore more lowkey, opaque financial crimes. White-collar crime proves both the making and unmaking of the title character in Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj’s latest, “The Moneychanger,” a character study of Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler), a bumbling banker who keeps money flowing for criminals and dictators in 1970s South America.
The film opens with Brause narrating the Biblical tale of Jesus throwing moneychangers out of the temple. This narration, recalling a Scorcese crime pic, identifies the moral of that story as “moneychangers are the root of all evil” and then proceeds to describe how he fell into it anyway. Starting in the 1950s as an apprentice banker, Humberto makes a name for himself by saying yes to unsavory clients wishing to move their money out of the country, often by stuffing suits full on flights to Switzerland. Unlike Henry Hill, Humberto doesn’t set out to be a criminal, but rather, he simply chooses the easy way out time and again. By the 1970s, he has married his former boss’ daughter, the straight-arrow Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), and takes over the firm, putting him in an excellent position to benefit from capital fleeing from/resulting from political repression in neighboring Brazil and Argentina. Humberto is able to land bigger and bigger clients, but for all his material gain, he loses his health, virility, and sense of self as he lurches from one mishap to the next.
While on the one hand “The Moneychanger” is a very handsomely shot period piece with a weighty subject, on the other, Veiroj has a slightly offbeat sensibility that compels him to lighten the drama with bits of comedy or absurdism, like Gudrun’s repeated recorder performances. Depending on your point of view, Brause is either a terrible protagonist or a perfect representation of his class. For all his narrative centrality, Brause remains somewhat passive, in the throes of forces larger than himself. Veiroj rigorously restricts the audience to Brause’s perspective, which is too selfish and short-sighted to look clearly at who he is helping – until violence makes it impossible to ignore.
The commitment to Brause’s perspective makes the film engaging throughout as a half-comic character study, but this doesn’t always well serve the larger themes he explores. The real threat of political violence coexists with sillier interludes such as ransacking the house of a man at his funeral looking for a bank vault key. Also, Veiroj gets a little lost between the timeless and timely aspects of his story – by looking all the way back to the Bible, he blunts the tragic reality of 1970s South America, that the capital flight Brause facilitated propped up brutal military dictatorships. Veiroj certainly knows this and is not hiding the fact, simply limiting our view of it to Brause’s limited awareness and sometimes his personal follies overshadow the more serious forces at work.
Even if the personal and political don’t always line up neatly in “The Moneychanger,” it’s an engaging character study of a man with little character, elevated by Veiroj’s unusual eye. [B]