Eye For Film >> Movies >> Lost Embrace (2004) Film Review
The travails of the younger generations of the Jewish diaspora have always been fertile ground for filmmakers – questions of heritage, belonging and integration are in the default setting, and there’s a wellspring of lugubrious humour to tap into if it all seems to be getting too gloomy.
So, the set-up of Lost Embrace is not unfamiliar. But this time the setting is not north London or Manhattan but Buenos Aires, and one of the chief pleasures of Daniel Burman’s engaging comedy is the way it plays with European preconceptions of Latin American society – and vice versa.
The handsome but troubled protagonist here is Ariel (played by Burman’s regular leading man Daniel Hendler), who works in a lingerie shop run by his mum (Adriana Aizenberg), located in a run-down shopping mall in the heart of the city. Except it’s not technically his mum’s shop at all - it still bears the name of his father, who ran off “to fight for Israel” in the Yom Kippur War and has neglected to return in the 30-plus years since.
Ariel is understandably miffed at this and has no desire to take on the family business. Instead he spends most of his time (when not having sex in the fitting rooms with a mutton-dressed-as-lamb internet cafe proprietor) trying to get a Polish passport so he can up sticks and travel to Europe. This mainly involves pestering his 30s singing star grandmother for documents from the old days to back up his claim.
A lot of the comedy derives from Ariel’s incongruous attempts to appropriate some ‘Mitteleuropa’ heritage – the scene in which Gael Garcia Bernal-lookalike Hendler tries to convince a disbelieving consular official of why he’d like to be Polish is a particular treat.
But Burman doesn’t shy away from the serious side of all this – the family’s sense of dislocation and loss (exacerbated by the absent father figure) is subtly conjured up. As is the irony of the not-altogether sympathetic Ariel regarding genocide and exile simply as a handy potential meal ticket to ‘Europe’ – fondly imagined by both the Jewish and goyim characters in the mall as a paradise of easily-obtainable work and relaxed living.
In realising that this myth of Europe is just that, Daniel learns more about the values of his chaotic but essentially good-hearted community. And the resentment he feels towards his father is brought to a head when the old man himself (D’Elia) turns up.
The conclusion is fairly pat and never really in any doubt, but along the way there’s much fun to be had. The humour is as dry and deadpan as you’d expect ("grandchildren are a gift from God – for not having killed our children," says the local rabbi) and the supporting cast are engaging, three-dimensional human beings, neither sentimentalised or stereotyped.
One of the chief pleasures for a UK audience, in fact, is seeing the surprising richness of Buenos Aires’ ethnic composition – the mall boasts Italians, Estonians, Peruvians and Koreans as well as the sizeable Jewish contingent among its salesforce and the multiculturalism on display here compares very favourably with the reality in the idealised Europe that the characters dream about.
And, of course, the mall itself is a character – an old lady of faded grandeur not unlike Ariel’s gran. Here nondescript storefronts offer everything from bespoke suits to feng shui with the same slightly despairing eagerness and everyday life is a struggle against new kinds of shopping, an unstable currency and a the thousand other problems. Ariel’s older brother Joseph (Sergio Boris) personifies the spirit of the mall; his childhood dream of becoming a rabbi has been turned (possibly by necessity through his dad’s departure) into the adult reality of life as a Del Boy-ish entrepreneur peddling cuddly toys and Argentinian versions of the talking fish ornament which look and sound every bit as irritating as their English cousins.
It’s this quirkiness that makes Lost Embrace so refreshingly different from the twin clichés of sex n’salsa or ‘life’s cheap then you die’ poverty that beset cinematic depictions of Latin America. See it for its incidental vignettes rather than its fairly conventional main narrative. Or, as one character says after listening to an extended Jewish shaggy dog story: “I know the ending, but the tale is good”.Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2007