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Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

Going nowhere in Buenos Aires

Lost Embrace

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Daniel Burman
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: Spanish, Korean, Italian, Yiddish
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In "Lost Embrace," the protagonist Ariel (Daniel Hendler) is always running; whenever things get dicey or he feels stifled by a conversation, Ariel gets up and . . . runs.

News photo
Daniel Hendler in "Lost Embrace"

Not that he's goes anywhere -- the hand-held camera pursues Ariel as far as the end of a street in El Once, a Jewish merchant district in downtown Buenos Aires, and then cuts to the next scene. It's a reflection on Ariel's life: His wish to escape extends as far as El Once's limits and then he returns to the familiarity of teeming shop stalls and sticky relationships that consist mostly of family and people he has known all his life.

In a voice-over narration, Ariel makes wry observations about the stagnancy and antiquated shabbiness of El Once and professes a longing to move to Poland, from which his grandmother had fled during the Holocaust. But he also admits he doesn't know the first thing about Poland and can count the number of Polish people that he knows (example: Pope John Paul II) on one hand. And so, after a vigorous run, he's still in the same neighborhood, wandering the alleyways, fired by a kind of quest for something he can't fully define.

"Lost Embrace" (titled "Boku to Milai to Buenos Aires" in Japan) is Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman's fifth feature, though he's more well known for his social documentaries, such as "7 Dias en El 11 (Seven Days in El Once)," which told of the aftermath of the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina building in Buenos Aires. More than 100 people died, and Burman's work showed how Jewish life was never the same again.

In most of his films, Burman focuses on what he knows best -- life in the Buenos Aires Jewish community, which has thrived here since the late 19th century. Now, more Italian and Korean retailers have moved into El Once, and though the Jewish-ness of the place has become somewhat diluted, instead there is -- as Ariel puts it -- "quite a little international world of its own." He likes it that his mother, Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg), is a classic Jewish mama who bustles regally about her tiny lingerie boutique and pampers him like a baby (Ariel is 30 years old), while two doors down is a cheap feng shui shop run by a young Korean couple who came to Buenos Aires to escape their family back home.

Critics have dubbed Burman "the Woody Allen of Latin America" and, indeed, Ariel could almost be a young Woody, obsessing wittily about Jewish identity issues, getting depressed and threatening to leave. Ultimately, Ariel is firmly entrenched in his home, his family, his community. El Once is at once his life and the excuse for who he is. The cozy alleyways, the familiar faces and, most of all, his mother are the main reasons for why he can't escape, even though the world outside El Once beckons with the promise of a more grand-scale, exciting existence.

Ariel reflects with a sigh that even his ex-girlfriend Rita (Silvina Bosco) was a childhood sweetheart; someone he had dated for 20 years. She had been ready to tie the knot, but he kept stalling for time, harboring dreams of escaping and being a "global citizen." Now she is pregnant with her new boyfriend's baby and the loveless Ariel can't help feeling sharp pangs of regret. (Ah, vintage Woody!)

Ariel's absent father, Elias (Jorge D'Elia), is at the root of his tendencies to procrastinate. Elias had left Buenos Aires to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War when his son was just a baby. This decision to leave cost him an arm in battle, followed by a mysterious, 30-year separation from his wife and children. During this time he never failed to send money at the end of every month and call Sonia on the phone, but it was clear he wasn't ready to return.

Ariel had nursed bitterness toward his runaway father most of his life, but recently this was mixed with feelings of pride that his father had taken the big step to assert himself as a Jew in the bravest way possible. On the other hand, Ariel feels ashamed that he lacks the guts to do the same. His mother had dealt with Elias' absence in a more simple way: She told herself and her son that war changes people, often irrevocably, and that's that.

When news arrives that Elias may be coming home, Ariel's first instinct is to go sprinting down the street. He can't face his dad, he can't stand life in El Once anymore, but, then again, Poland still seems to be out of the question.

Dark, brooding and handsome, Ariel is both the best and worst thing happening in "Lost Embrace." While the story addresses the more compelling issue of Jewish life in Latin America (compared to the situation in the United States and Europe, the Jews here are less visible, politically and financially), Ariel and his dilemma seem somewhat banal. OK, so he's psychologically paralyzed by the heroism of his dad and hampered by his doting mom. But at 30, he can't seem to find anything to do but mind his mother's boutique and bicker with his neighbors, which requires more patience to watch as the movie progresses.

However hard Ariel runs, he can't get past the hurdles in his own mind, whose size, by the way, has come to match the length and width of El Once. Kind of limiting for someone who always talks of becoming a global citizen.

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