Abrazo Partido, El (Lost Embrace)

Daniel Burman’s Lost Embrace (El Abrazo Partido) is on one level an ethnic drama about Jewish exile (in Argentina) and on another a more universal tale of growing up and coming to terms with one’s parents for the first time as an adult. Both themes come together as the film’s hero, Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler), realizes with a shock that to be his parents’ child means to be, in some significant way, what they are — which is to say, not only Jewish but human.

We first meet Ariel helping out in the women’s lingerie shop run by his mother, Sonja (Adriana Aizemberg), in a down-at-heels shopping mall in Buenos Aires. The shop struggles to get by in the Argentinian economic depression and Ariel dreams of emigrating to Poland, of all places. He applies for a Polish passport on the grounds that his maternal grandmother (Rosita Londner) was born there, even though she fled to Argentina at the time of the Nazi invasion and remains convinced that Europeans in general want to kill all Jews. There is a comic scene in which Ariel attempts to explain to the Polish consul (Wolfrans Hecht) why he wants to be Polish. “I love art,” he stumbles, “especially Polish art.” Not being able to think of any Polish artists, however, he is reduced to mentioning Lech Welesa, whose name he mispronounces, and then, a sudden inspiration, Roman Polanski — “the one who had that trouble with the girl. I don’t judge him,” he quickly adds.

While he waits for his application to be approved, Ariel is involved in the life of the mall and the neighboring shopkeepers, each of whom has his own story to tell. Mitelman (Diego Korol), for instance, runs what is ostensibly a travel agency but which is really a front for currency smuggling. Osvado (Isaac Fajm), the stationer across the way is perpetually on the point of going out of business but always manages to hang on somehow. The mall tenants take a break from constant worries about business to discuss a race between Ariel’s friend Ramón (Juan José Flores Quispe) and “the Peruvian” (Gerardo del Águila) through the streets of Buenos Aires wheeling fully laden hand-trucks.

Meanwhile, Ariel is preoccupied with the mystery, even to himself, of why he has recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend, Estela (Melina Petriella), who suddenly turns up pregnant by somebody else. The best he can do by way of explanation to Mitelman is to say that he had known her too long. “I felt I was in a rut,” he tells him, “and that the next fifty years would be like the last ten. I know I’m a jerk,” he says. “I’ll die anyway, only she won’t be stroking my hair when I do.” Now he is consoling himself with Rita (Silvina Bosco), the older woman who runs the mall’s Internet café. But he can’t get her to tell him who — husband? father? uncle? — is the old man, Gerardo (Francisco Pinto), who hangs around her shop and to whom she behaves affectionately. “Is he your father?” asks Ariel.

“Sometimes,” says Rita.

She has already explained to him that “sometimes” is her favorite unit of time. Ariel says his is the lustrum, or five year period. It’s a telling indication of the differences in their ages: he making five-year plans and she trying to make time her servant rather than her master. Her reply also suggests a fluidity of relational categories that is troubling to Ariel for more reasons than his jealousy and reluctance to make love to another man’s wife. It’s important to him to keep his own father and mother, especially, locked into those tight little categories along with the grudges he bears them both.

His resentment is mainly directed at his father, who left the family to fight for Israel in theYom Kippur War of 1973, when Ariel was a baby, and then stayed on in Israel. But some of it is also reserved for his mother. “You get married, have kids, divorce, and then you expect your kids to have kids?” he says to her reproachfully.

She can only reply: “We loved life.”

Later, after his father (Jorge D’Elía) turns up unexpectedly on the day of the big race between Ramón and the Peruvian, he says to him: “You went to save all the Jews in the world — except one.”

Here I regret that I must decline to reveal the bombshell dropped by his mother which persuades Ariel to resume relations with his father, but I hope it is giving nothing essential away to say that it produces a moment of revelation familiar to most of us: that moment when we first realize that our parents are people like ourselves.

I liked the movie’s rather witty, whimsical style overlaying a deeper seriousness, and although it tends to be just a touch too talky, it also has an occasional eye for the telling visual detail. Sometimes it seems to have more narrative threads than Mr Burman can hold in his hand at one time, but they more than once take on new and unexpected meanings in relation to the central conflicts. Most striking is the way in which Ariel’s rather comically paranoid grandmother suddenly comes to life as a refugee from the Holocaust. As she sings a klezmer song over the closing credits we hear not only the sense of personal loss and regret but the history of a people against which the sexual psychodramas of individuals, so absorbing in themselves, are always played out.

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