Film: Lost Embrace

“The Passion of the Christ” opened in Argentina last week at the same time as a film on a Jewish son searching for the truth about his father. “The Lost Embrace” won an award at the Berlin Film Festival.

BERLIN — “Lost Embrace” is a lighthearted but nonetheless earnest look at a question of identity, which occurs in the most mundane of circumstances — a shopping mall in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that has seen better days. Director Daniel Burman, an Argentine Jew, makes most of his characters either Jewish or immigrants from outside South America, each coming to terms with the feeling that maybe he or she belongs elsewhere. The film takes a whimsical view of this insular and sometimes daft environment where everyone’s eccentricities are given an opportunity to shine.

While this is a relatively minor film from the young director, its gentle humor will be welcome on the festival circuit even if theatrical distribution outside of Spanish-speaking territories seems unlikely. Cinematographer Ramiro Civita keeps his hand-held camera tight on the characters. He seldom widens to give us the vantage point of the mall in general or the streets surrounding it. The movie keeps us confined to this small world, as are its longtime shopkeepers. The Italian shopkeepers shout at one another all day. A Korean couple sells feng shui items, a dolled-up 40-year-old blonde and an older male companion run an Internet shop, and the guy in the stationery store seems to have no customers.

Ariel (Daniel Hendler) works none too hard to assist his mother, Sonia (Adriana Aizemberg), who has run a lingerie shop ever since Ariel’s dad disappeared from their lives to fight a war in Israel. Ariel’s desire to claim a Polish passport so he can travel to Europe as a European upsets his grandmother (Rosita Londner), who escaped from Poland and the Nazis, and his mother, who worries about what a search through old documents will reveal. Ariel wiles away his time in furtive sexual trysts with the Internet lady, Rita (Silvina Bosco), and a never-ending string of questions about the past that mother and grandmother answer with shrugs. But when his father (Jorge D’Elia) does show up, he gets more answers than he can handle and has to re-examine the very nature of those questions.

Burman and co-writer Marcelo Birmajer emphasize all that is quirky in their characters, never pushing themes that could yield a much more serious film, such as the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish characters or the father’s experiences in Israel. Following suit, the actors amusingly exaggerate the ethnic angles to their characters without mockery or condescension. Hendler gives the protagonist enough restless energy to suggest the frustration of his small-potatoes existence and his anxiety to explore the world. Aizemberg is particularly good as the Jewish mother caught between son and ex-husband, while Londner gets her moment in the sun when the grandmother reveals a singing talent kept under wraps for decades. Burman establishes a brisk pace in this 100-minute comedy so that none of the characters or gags wears thin. A somewhat pat ending denies the crucial issues at stake here, but this movie’s relationship to the Jewish experience is more Neil Simon than Elie Wiesel.

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