'The Moneychanger' Review: A Slight Political Drama With A Few Delights [NYFF]

If you're going to open your film with a sequence straight out of the Bible, you had better not come to play. That's the gambit Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj lays out at the beginning of The Moneychanger as the film's titular financier, Daniel Hendler's Humberto Brause, connects himself to the very profession that Jesus singled out for criticism at the temple. Connecting his story to such weighty history sets up a story with big stakes, and yet those are largely absent in the film.

That's not to say that The Moneychanger is bad, to be clear. It just shows that perhaps the film's ambitions are a touch out of sync with what it actually does. Veiroj's film works a self-contained, small story about Humberto's unexpected turn as a South American money launderer. But when he zooms out and tries to place it some kind of larger historical or moral framework, the film lacks a similar spark.

The Moneychanger works best when it stays close to Humberto, the unlikely man at the center of continent-spanning financial fraud. While one might perhaps expect a smooth operator, criminal mastermind or amoral materialist, he fits none of the stereotypes for a book-cooking crook. Instead, Humberto is a bit of a wet blanket of a man, the very profile of a regular bureaucrat rather than a robber baron. He stumbles into his involvement in a corrupt scheme through his father-in-law and keeps going not out of any great motivation – it's mostly just because it would require some real initiative to change course.

Veiroj's greatest asset is his dry sense of humor, particularly when it comes to the regards in which he holds Humberto. He has no fear in making him the butt of a joke, particularly if it's one that undercuts the little authority or power he has. Despite being a key figure in offshore money laundering, Verioj frequently depicts Humberto unable to order coffee. That's the doing of his wife, who manages to instruct everyone in Humberto's path to deny his caffeinated vice.

Veiroj's film is never cruel or unkind to the protagonist, in part because he does not really merit scorn or ire. But he does not exactly inspire sympathy or identification, either. While Humberto states early in The Moneychanger that he has qualms with profiting from the misery of South American people as economies tanked in the mid-twentieth century, those morals disappear by the end. Do they slowly fade away or evaporate in a single instant, though? It's a question that begs answering – or at least deliberation – from Veiroj raising it at the beginning of the film. But he's more interested in looking at Humberto from an ironic distance rather than exploring his internal psychology.

The whole affair ultimately proves rather mundane and simple. By the time The Moneychanger circles back to the opening image of Christ, the film does not feel as if it has come full circle. The parallel serves a reminder of how limited the story of Humberto is. He does not work as any kind of allegorical or representational figure. He does not feel like a stand-in for the nation or any kind of larger ideal, save the corruption of ideals that Veiroj shows such little interest in interrogating.

In a different context, this likely would not matter so much. At the New York Film Festival, a film like The Moneychanger gets freighted with outsized expectations – especially when it stands in for an entire national cinema that rarely gets represented in the Main Slate. These films bear a responsibility, perhaps unfairly, to make some kind of statement about the state of politics, life and culture in their countries. (Or, at the very least, convey some important reflection on their country's history.) Had Veiroj's film played in Lincoln Center's more compact yearly festival Neighboring Scenes, a smaller encapsulation of Latin American cinema, the more controlled scope might not have nagged in the same way. But when seen amongst some of the heaviest hitting international films, The Moneychanger does feel like a bit of a trifle, well-made and entertaining as it is.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10