How well do you know your best friends or your spouse? Are you secure in the knowledge that you are hiding nothing from each other? Or are you aware of the possibility that there may be an eclipse of the moon every now and then in their personalities and lives setting them on a trajectory that they have kept secret from you?
Daniel Burman’s happy-go-lucky, whimsical and profound film The Mystery of Happiness, screened at The 24th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival, focuses its opening scene on best buddies and business partners Eugenio (Fabian Arenillas), and Santiago (Guillermo Francella). Eugenio and Santiago are mirror images of one another. Friends since childhood, they abide in the closeness of a shared identity. Together they own and operate an appliance store. They enjoy working together and engage in various activities outside of work. In their manner of dress, their economic style, their mannerisms and their geniality, they are like identical twins. Their friendship is “the whole.” It is as if they each know what the other is thinking even before the thought is verbalized. Both are satisfied and contented and their ambitions are realized; indeed they have achieved peace, comfort and complete felicity with each other and with their lives.
Abiding in this steady state of perfection and harmony effortlessly is what both depend upon. So when Eugenio does not show up for work one day (they usually follow each other in their BMWs), Santiago is convinced that there has been foul play: either Eugenio has been kidnapped or an accident has befallen him. When Eugenio’s wife Laura (Ines Estevez in a humorous counterpoint to Francella), shows up at the store, both discuss Eugenio’s absence. Santiago barely acknowledges her comments as she matter-of-factly suggests Eugenio has “hit the road.”
Laura gives the impression of unrest and aimlessness in between swallowing prescription meds for anxiety which she apparently had years before Eugenio disappeared. When she expresses an interest in taking Eugenio’s place in the business, Santiago is doubly devastated and unnerved. In his emotional and intellectual estimation, no one can take Eugenio’s place and though he manages to remain temperate under the circumstances, we understand that Eugenio was closer to Santiago than life itself. Indeed, it would seem that Santiago defined his own happiness, and structured his own existence around Eugenio. The fact that Eugenio hijacked his life by going missing without giving notice is Santiago’s greatest emotional earthquake (Francella plays this with an expert comic touch). Coupled with this great blow is the even more terrifying factor that Eugenio will never return and he left intentionally as his wife suggested. It is evident Laura’s and Eugenio’s marriage wasn’t compatible or fun. What does Laura know about her husband that Santiago never suspected?
Burman unfolds these events with great good humor in the ironic interplay between Laura and Santiago and especially as Santiago expresses amazement that Eugenio may have had the temerity to keep something secret from him. Indeed, for Santiago, it would be more of a relief if Eugenio’s body turned up lifeless somewhere than if they discovered that Eugenio just took off to do something completely amazing.
A few days pass and the mystery grows when the police turn up nothing. Burman has engaged us in the why, what and where of Eugenio’s disappearance and we feel for the wife and friend. When Santiago presses Laura about her relationship with Eugenio, ultimately she ends up with surprising explanations always ending in fatalistic comments that he has left “for good.” Santiago holds out for some dire word about his friend who never said goodbye. Laura and Santiago compromise on a working arrangement and as Laura takes over for Eugenio at work, there is a subtle transference. Eugenio’s absence has thrown them together, and they are actually getting along and learning to like one other.
Nevertheless, to allay their fears about what happened to him, they engage a cryptic private detective, Inspector Oudukian (a wryly funny Alejandro Awada), who reputedly once worked for Interpol and the Mossad. In a comic juxtaposition of the typical investigator role, the Inspector meets them in his favorite restaurant and for his fee leaves them with a huge bill and homework; they are going to be doing the search because they know Eugenio best. Inspector Oudukian also gives them some vital information after he looks at a picture of Eugenio. He mentions that Eugenio does not look like a desperate and unhappy man; on the country, he is not present in the picture; he is “far away.” It is an important clue which sets them on their own investigation. Gradually another portrait of Eugenio emerges for each of them: Santiago discovers Laura and Eugenio both loved to dance and often went to clubs, facts which Santiago never knew about his friend. Laura discovers that Eugenio and Santiago both loved the same woman in their youth. What else don’t they know about this familiar stranger?
Laura and Santiago ask each other more questions and and these lead to more clues, more restaurant sessions with their investigator who never moves from his seat, more big bills and a developing friendship and closeness between them. Eventually, their stars align on their journey to discovering a solution to the why and the where of Eugenio’s disappearance. In the process they create their own answers to how to find happiness, a condition which Eugenio has provoked them to. Indeed, one of the developing questions of this intriguing and cleverly rendered film is why Eugenio didn’t just tell Laura and Santiago that he was leaving? Did he realize that if he left without argument or tears that would be the best for all of them? Clearly, Eugenio is canny, perceptive and profound in his abandonment of a life poorly lived in a construct that he finally was able to admit was not working for him, Laura and Santiago.
Eugenio’s going AWOL was a gift to his wife and his friend who were able to come together after he left. It sent them on a journey out of their comfort zone, which was contrary to their static expectations and the narrow realities of their own lives. While searching to understand where Eugenio was (his “place in the universe”), they realized they were lost without him and in a place they had not sought for themselves. His leaving allowed them to define for themselves their place and their solution to what could make them happy. It is Eugenio’s guiding light that sets them on their own path to solving their own mystery of how to receive contentment and peace. The result is a new beginning for all three individuals.
Burman’s The Mystery of Happiness is in sync with his very solid body of work. The director and actors craft an intriguing film replete with humor. It investigates with a light touch deep questions about why we make the choices we do and how we sometimes allow friends to take over our lives to everyone’s detriment as we become less and less “present” to enjoy life’s journey. The film does this with gentle, humorous prods that drive us to consider how we can become victims when we set the parameters of our identity and tie them to cultural mores that tout ambition and success as our happiness. The film suggests that each individual must discover the deepest value of a meaningful existence for himself or herself and it does not reside in any other individual. Sometimes the greatest release toward this fulfillment is by risking everything that we once thought dear and valuable. In that release there is great gain, and in that gain our friends, partners and ourselves will see a path toward grace that they never understood or had the courage to take before.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00LVZK5H6,B00O1SCLD6]