By contributing blogger Benjamín Harguindey
The Mystery of Happiness (El Misterio de la Felicidad) is Daniel Burman’s newest film, an Argentine-Brazilian dramatic comedy shot on location and starring Guillermo Francella and Inés Estévez. The movie opened January 16th to a decent reception of near 200,000 spectators and is currently going on its third week of screening.
The premise is simple yet intriguing: Santiago (Francella) and Eugenio are lifelong buddies, living a clockwork existence that starts every day as they drive side-by-side to work together, listening to the exact same radio station and laughing at the exact same time. At work they ping-pong tasks back and forth; fittingly enough they’re also paddle partners and frequently team up at the court. They hit the race tracks, they hit the sauna, they go shopping. If they can’t do something together, they certainly do it at the same time – like synchronizing their bathroom stops.
Santiago has been comfortably lulled by routine after all these years. Not so Eugenio, who lately has been staring into the distance as waves roll in the soundtrack and the screen fades to an ominous white. Three such instances and boom, Eugenio doesn’t show up to work one day. Santiago worries. His friend doesn’t show up for any of their ritual practices, and won’t pick up his calls. Not long after Santiago is joined by Eugenio’s wife Laura (Estévez): Eugenio has disappeared.
What follows is Burman’s most thoughtful (though not particularly deep) film, as our protagonists embark on a quest that gradually takes an existential redolence as they start looking less for Eugenio and more into their own lives and what they want from them. Eugenio’s disappearance unsettles their lives in ways they can’t even begin to comprehend at first, so that Santiago must question his life of frivolous comfort and Laura – who takes over Eugenio’s half of the store, much to Santiago’s chagrin – and Laura must repurpose her life around something or someone else.
You’d be correct to smell rom-com hijinks from afar (wait for that obligatory salsa scene), but fortunately the movie’s smarter than that and is true to its characters and their plights, which have less to do with romance and more about self-worth and (spoilers) happiness. They behave like victims of a disaster, consoling each other between bouts of outrage and disbelief. Less fortunate is the self-help vibe that prevails throughout the movie, and the way it s. Its theory is infuriatingly simple: look inside and do what you will. Ta-da.
If and when The Mystery of Happiness works, it’s because of the casting. Francella, he of the mournful stare, is certainly typecast as the uneasy, slightly neurotic underdog, but he matches wonderfully to Estévez, who switches between snappy childishness and being a pill-popping train wreck. Do they fall for each other, and what about Eugenio? He’s played by Fabián Arenillas with such understated presence that he holds the movie together despite such short screen time. Some questions are answered, others are completely dropped by the end.
Anyway, for a movie so ambitious as to be called The Mystery of Happiness, it sure doesn’t hold all that much mystery. It gets its tone and its characters spot-on, but is loose around the laughter and light about its subject matter.