By Thomas Puhr.
The Andorra Hustle exists in a precarious position, torn between being an insightful think-piece and a grating political rant.”
Events with far-reaching geopolitical ramifications can originate from the unlikeliest of places, as illustrated in Eric Merola’s The Andorra Hustle (2020). If you have no idea that the documentary’s title refers to a small country wedged between France and Spain, you are not alone; the director notes how Andorran citizens are often stopped at customs for carrying passports from a “fake” country. But it was in this little-known location, he claims, that a conspiracy to quell the Catalan independence movement resulted in a small bank, Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), being framed for international money laundering. It takes some time (and verbal gymnastics) for Merola to elucidate how the former event caused the latter; his densely researched narration confounds more than it entices. Indeed, it’s hard to make sense of the proceedings without the aid of frequent Google searches.
This is what I’ve been able to piece together. In 2015, the U.S.-led Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) accused BPA of knowingly laundering money for Russia, China, Venezuela, and even the Sinaloa drug cartel. As a result, many customers’ accounts were frozen, various workers remain in court limbo (facing what could be years of jail time), and the bank was quickly bought up by J.C. Flowers, an American investment company. If we accept Merola’s assertion that this was a setup – in order to convince us, he incorporates original interviews, news footage and articles, court and government documents, and much more – then the question remains: Why? To make a long story short, the bank was purportedly “assassinated” for refusing to cooperate with Spanish authorities seeking (illegal) access to financial information on Catalonian politicians who had been vocal about gaining independence. Confused? That’s okay; the interviewees occasionally seem just as baffled by what happened.
Merola’s access to key players in the controversy bolsters his argument. In addition to speaking directly with former BPA executives and their lawyers, he also interviews two former Catalonian presidents: Artur Mas (2010-2016) and Carles Puigdemont (2016-2017), the latter of whom spoke with Merola in Belgium (where he lived in exile) shortly before his arrest for sedition. He has since been released. These sequences, in which the subjects simply speak for themselves, are easily the film’s strongest. “I agree with the rule of law, and I also agree with the basic terms of democracy,” Mas intones. “But they don’t.” The problem is that it’s not always clear who, exactly, “they” are (Russia? The United States? Spain?), an issue rooted in the writer-director’s problematic narration. His breathless explanations – with their convoluted diversions and references to obscure terminology – lose sight of the big picture. With a nearly two-hour runtime, the barrage of information will test even the most patient of viewers.
Merola’s voiceover work often eclipses the raw power of his subjects’ first-hand experiences. “So, what does Madrid’s war with Catalonia have to do with assassinating a private bank in Andorra?” he asks, sounding like an indignant YouTuber during a late-night, Mountain Dew-fueled recording session. “Wait until you get a load of this.” It’s hard not to imagine him hunched over the archetypal corkboard, with red string connecting various black-and-white photographs and maps. The accompanying visuals can be equally amateurish; the subtitles, for example, annoyingly substitute logos for the governmental entities to which they refer, and PowerPoint-like photo collages seem to have been culled from scattered Google searches. Such stylistic flourishes underline, rather than disguise, obvious budget limitations.
Though impressively up-to-date – he refers to sources as recent as January of 2020 – Merola’s presentation is decidedly, defiantly one-sided. Not once does he interview someone who doesn’t think BPA was the victim of a nefarious, global plot. And his speculation that the money indefinitely frozen in the bank is gone for good – in other words, that the entire ordeal was little more than an elaborate heist – lacks tangible supporting evidence. This argument, while intriguing (perhaps even likely), collapses under a deluge of bewildering statistics.
Besides its actual president, Andorra had two unofficial “co-princes” at the time of this crisis: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Bishop Joan Enric Vives Sicília. The Andorra Hustle exists in a similarly precarious position, torn between being an insightful think-piece and a grating political rant. Someone should have advised Merola to take more of a backseat on this one; you know it’s a bad sign when an interviewer speaks more than those in front of the camera.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.