El Abrazo Partido: Lost Embrace

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Lost Embrace, which won the Best Actor prize for its sweetly appealing leading man, Daniel Hendler, at the 2004 Berlinale, has taken a little over a year to reach Seattle. It opens, aptly enough, on April Fools’ Day, 2005, at one of the Landmark Theatres.

The movie has no plot of which to speak; it follows Ariel, a young man lost in the shallows of his late twenties, as he roams the streets of his native Buenos Aires and, more importantly, through the corridors of the dingy shopping mall where he and his single mother run a lingerie store.

Lost Embrace, quite unlike Garden State or Goodbye Lenin, owes nothing to American sitcoms. The screenplay by Daniel Burman (who also directs) and Marcelo Birmajer neither sounds like movie dialogue nor moves with the usual, expected emphases; it’s refreshingly idiosyncratic and agenda-free behaviorally. Burman, perhaps much like his lead character, was born in Buenos Aires in the 1970s of Polish Jewish descent.

The movie rolls along with extended scenes at the mall, lengthy takes of business owners planning a kind of street race in order to determine which of their deliverymen runs faster. After an excess of this, when was I lulled into thinking Lost Embrace a pointless mess, the director pulls some cinematic sleight of hand, delineating difficult psychological passages with such economy and wit that an entirely new work takes shape on screen.

Ariel impassively dreams of escape: to Europe, via Poland, of a world away from his unambitious, mildly hysteric mother Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg), and from those obsessive questions of identity that haunt and to a large degree define him. At the film’s beginning, he guides us on a tour of the mall, relating the impoverished lore of the place, such as the time his long-missing father intentionally smashed a mayo jar in a diner some thirty years prior. This threadbare anecdote typifies what Ariel has to go on for “personal history.”

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Hendler, born in 1976, believably plays a man who has never known his father, who’s had to hunt and peck his entire life for even the most trivial information about his own origins. And most of the film’s visual interest (it certainly isn’t a showcase for Buenos Aires) stems from watching Hendler’s feathery dark hair and handsome face. He combines adult angst not incompatibly with childlike rhythms. He’s almost always running along the urban streets, and in one scene skipping and leaping over sacks of trash on the sidewalk as he goes.

As Sonia, Adriana Aizenberg seems at times to have wandered in from an Almodóvar film, yet she provides a welcome Argentine twist on the Jewish mother. The relation between Ariel and his maternal grandmother yields greater surprise: in paying a visit to her apartment, Ariel tells her that she needs to get out more. The elderly lady responds that her grandson ought to take her somewhere. And that’s that, until sometime later, when a beautifully funny sequence emerges from the race between the two deliverymen—it becomes Grandma’s job to drop the red silk hankie that starts them running. The Yiddish cabaret singer Rosita Londner, who has been performing in South America for decades, plays the grandmother to perfection; this is—better late than never—her first film role.

Burman’s visual style harkens to early to mid-period De Palma, say from Greetings (1968) through Dressed to Kill (1980). The mise-en-scène shares with De Palma’s a voyeuristic quality: Burman’s characters are constantly peering or being viewed through windows, sometimes while having sex or studying the motions of their sex partners for signs of betrayal. In one of the best shot and edited sections, Ariel bounces into an empty auditorium, takes a seat, and from the wings of the bare stage comes a troupe of amateurs recreating traditional Hebrew folk dances. There’s a moderately long take of the dancers moving exuberantly to the sounds of Klezmer, with perhaps no more than one reaction cut to Ariel seated alone, then back to the stage where two of the dancers turn out to be Sonia and her doddering, middle-aged suitor whom her son despises. Aizenberg and her dancing partners give their all on stage, embracing Jewish heritage with a gusto that embarrasses Ariel, who has vanished when the camera next cuts to his now vacant seat.

When the film’s big revelation—why Ariel’s father disappeared after his son’s birth—finally arrives, it hasn’t been well thought out by the filmmakers. What matters more are the inexplicable bits of delight that Burman and his cast create with deceptively casual great care. Ariel’s visit to a couple of Korean shopkeepers, in which he learns the story of how they came to be in Argentina, is beguilingly directed, drawing us fully into a self-contained narrative within the narrative. I also love Burman’s decision to score the foot race to a piano concerto, a perfect musical collision of private emotions and public event. – NPT

March 25, 2005

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