Review: 25 Watts (2001)

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Not a country well-known for its cinematic output (its sole Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film was subsequently revoked when it was decided that A Place in the World was in fact an Argentine production), Uruguay has attracted little in the way of critical attention for its films. 2001’s 25 Watts was perhaps the first Uruguayan film to be seriously noticed internationally, winning a string of festival awards and prompting a new interest in its national cinema from both within and without.

Shot on 16mm in black and white, the bare-bones plot of 25 Watts is likely attributable as much to the lack of resources of its co-directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll as it is to their narrative intentions. Three friends in a sleepy Uruguayan town populated with bizarre characters deal with the problems of their lives, from dissatisfaction with employment to difficulties in studying.

25 Watts begins with an impressive long take, a tracking shot following its protagonists along a long line of suburban houses. They remain dour and silent, neither speaking to nor glancing at each other. The scene is almost reminiscent of those of Béla Tarr, at least until one of the three suddenly presses a bell and they together gallop away before the door is opened by a perplexed old woman. Such scenes define 25 Watts in a way, combining its directors’ expressive visuals with a cheeky appreciation of its characters’ childish whims.

These are classic slacker characters, albeit delivered in a cultural context that will be wholly unfamiliar to almost every viewer. One derives a keen sense of the banality of urban Uruguayan life, each character reflecting in various ways the bored lethargy of the country’s youth. Leche finds himself underprepared for an Italian exam, yet spends more time fantasizing over his tutor and dancing to records than learning his verb constructions. Javi, taken in by a kind self-made businessman, is disdainful of his monotonous job, eager to experience something more than his everyday mundanity. Seba, amusingly, is simply keen to grow up; watching pornography is his chosen method of indoctrinating himself into the adult world.

The greatest strength of 25 Watts is its characters, its assortment of secondary players perhaps as memorable as its primary protagonists. A Freud-obsessed shopkeeper; a former royal guard harried by voices in his head; a man determined to become the first Uruguayan to hold a Guinness World Record; a dim-witted boy searching for his missing dog: each of these meanders in and out of the primary narrative, drawing us into their own individual stories and tempting us to follow theirs instead. 25 Watts takes an evident inspiration from realist cinema, its plot bound only by the idiosyncrasies of those who find themselves tangled up in it. It could validly be argued that this is a film wherein nothing happens, but the true joy lies in how nothing happens; in how these characters react to the repetitive world around them.

Of course, a film with little narrative to speak of requires something more to support it, a task 25 Watts consigns to humour. This is a delightfully witty film, a wildly bizarre and often baffling work of comic invention that entertains at every turn. Be it in the recurring idea of inane superstitions or the interventions of one of the many colourful background characters, the laughs here arrive sometimes almost too rapidly to register them all. Leche’s grandmother may be the source of most of the film’s comedy, her trance-like happening upon Seba in the middle of his adult viewing matched only in its hilarity by her being used as a human antenna for the television at one point. 25 Watts is consistently funny in refreshingly original ways, deriving its laughs from the interactions between its unique characters and the wealth of interestingly comic scenarios they find themselves in.

Repetition, boredom, routine, and the draining dullness of everyday life: these are the primary concerns of 25 Watts, the issues it tackles head on in its every aspect. Rebella and Stoll dwell on the monotony of life, jump-cutting scenes of Javi’s working day (he drives a car which repeats the same pasta advertisement for hours on end) to emphasize the repetitive agony of his every moment. An ingenious scene arises from their mounting the camera upon a revolving turntable, capturing Leche’s literally circular efforts to commit himself to his studies. Working with limited resources, the directors weave an impressively deep social comment into their inherently comedic film, interspersing the many laughs with a nice glimpse into the disappointing first iterations of adult life.

Painfully funny to the last, 25 Watts is a wonderfully simplistic urban comedy with more than its fair share of original characters and comic scenarios. More than merely this, however, it touches at times on the profound, daring to delve into the less funny aspects of the disappointing dullness of life and growing up. Meaningful as well as hilarious, it demonstrates precisely the kind of directorial talent required to reinvigorate a national cinema.

[notification type=”star”]84/100 ~ GREAT. 25 Watts is a delightfully witty film, a wildly bizarre and often baffling work of comic invention that entertains at every turn.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.