LOST EMBRACE (Daniel Burman, 2004)

Daniel Burman is a Jewish Argentine of Polish descent. One of his grandparents relocated to Argentina after being liberated from a Nazi death camp at the end of the war. Burman is a fictional filmmaker, but he has also made a documentary about the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center, Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, in Buenos Aires, an event that killed 87 persons, wounded about three hundred more, and destroyed archives. I have just seen Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido), the humane, gentle, exuberant, deliriously funny comedy by this gifted artist that took the Silver Bear—the prize just below the top one—at Berlin. (It won other prizes as best film and for Burman in Latin America and the top prize at Bangkok.) Burman was also one of the producers of Walter Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries (2004) about the young “Che” Guevara.

Lost Embrace is the first film of Burman’s that I have seen. I have read that all his films grapple with the issue of Jewish identity. Yet Burman himself seems delightfully immune to Spielbergian ambivalence over the matter. He recently told an interviewer that being Jewish in Argentina is “very easy”: “You wake up in the morning and you’re Jewish, and that’s all you have to do. There’s not really an anti-Semitic atmosphere. But occasionally there are incidents that have more to do with individual ignorance than anything that’s more widespread.”

Burman is in his mid-thirties. Ariel Makaroff, the protagonist of Lost Embrace, is a few years younger. His father, Elías, abandoned his wife, Sonia, and two sons to go fight in the Yom Kippur War. After the war, his father chose to remain in Israel rather than return home, and the family has been loath to provide specific details to Ariel, who over the years has built up resentment for Elías that borders on hate. The boy is dear. I suspect that Burman is dear as well.

Ariel works in his mother’s lingerie shop in a downscale mall in Buenos Aires. He is planning on relocating to Europe, initially, Poland, to complete his architectural studies. He feels he needs a drastic change in what has become for him a stalled life. Ironically, and brilliantly, Burman portrays the boy as always being on the go. Hand-held shots abound of Ariel rushing here or there (and, implicitly, nowhere), most of them from the rear in which only the back of Ariel’s upper shoulders, neck and head appear. Early on, Ariel’s voiceover accompanies a complex portrait of the merchants (some of them immigrants), of various ancestries, in the mall’s melting pot. It takes us a while before we are able to fix an image of Ariel’s face.

Part of the omnipresent backdrop to the film’s action, including Ariel’s decision to move, is the economic crisis that globalization has imposed on Argentina. The paucity of patrons and the closing of shops imply the squeezing out and lowering of the nation’s middle class and the further financial debasement, as well, of marginal consumers.

This is also a film about the city’s Jewish community. Its aging rabbi is about to leave to head a synagogue in Miami Beach, where he is expected to appeal to the Latino population, and the Jewish community as a whole seems markedly secular—this, too, in part a result of the Holocaust and resultant diaspora. (Increasing Jewish secularism, of course, preceded the Holocaust.) The one time we see Ariel in synagogue is for nothing religious; he is discussing his absent father with the rabbi, and the sight of the boy wearing a yarmulke comes as a pleasant shock. On the other hand, surely Elías’s abandonment of family has something to do with the secular lives of the family members he left behind. Tellingly, Ariel’s ritual circumcision—the film’s one religious event—appears not as a clear filmed flashback but as a murky family videotape recording.

One of the film’s great characters—and this is a film chock full of great characters, especially great Jewish characters—is Ariel’s elderly maternal grandmother, Abuela de Ariel. Long ago, she had sung professionally; but, after the war, she stopped singing, even at home, because her singing reminded her husband, who is now deceased, of all they’d lost—all that the Nazis had taken away from them. It is Grandma, heartachingly played by Rosita Londner, who assists her grandson in embracing his Jewish identity by reminiscing about the Nazi ordeal; and her resumption of her singing, first at home and, later, despite her age, professionally, epitomizes the resurgence and indomitability of human spirit that lends the film some of its most poignant notes.

But nothing in the film is quite so shattering as the reconciliation of father and son, of Elías and Ariel, after an initially rocky reunion. Burman again sets the camera behind Ariel as Ariel is walking down the street, but now with Elías. While in motion, Ariel repositions himself so that he is on the side of his father that includes an arm, Elías having lost an arm in the Yom Kippur War. Each puts an arm around the other as they walk. The wordless visual magic shortcircuits the potential sentimentality.

Indeed, the entire film is intricately and powerfully visual. This is not the sort of comedy in which characters say wittier things than people say in reality. The comedy is all in the shots and the editing; there are pricelessly funny reaction shots, for instance, in abundance.

The excellent script is by Burman and Marcelo Birmajer. To help bring it to life, Burman has assembled a phenomenal cast. Daniel Hendler as Ariel, Adriana Aizemberg as Ariel’s mother, Jorge D’Elía as his father, Londner as Grandma, Sergio Boris as brother Joseph, and Melina Petriella as Estela, Ariel’s former girlfriend: these and other performances could not have been bettered.

Be sure to stick around for the final credits, during which there are inserts of new action. One of these sets the audience to cheering.

Lost Embrace is one of the best films of 2004.

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