Mall Ratty

A store clerk's tale is Lost amid a flurry of poor camerawork

Lost Embrace, a new film by Argentine director Daniel Burman, looks more like a hand-held video by the purist Dogme school of Denmark. Centered in Buenos Aires, it's an unevenly amusing comedy of family reconciliation that looks like a thumb in the eye and tastes of Europudding throughout.

Ariel is a hangdog thirtysomething who clerks for his mother's lingerie business and bewails his father's desertion of Mom (Adriana Aizenberg) back in 1973. He scrapes his existence out of a polyglot, mostly European colony in an Argentine shopping mall largely populated by the unassimilated children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from Europe in the 1930s. Uncomfortable at work -- uncomfortable everywhere, actually -- Ariel schemes through most of the film to score a Polish passport and flee to Europe. He thus spends most of his time saying goodbye to the setting we're gradually finding our way around in; he's an exile in a colony of exiles, and seemingly incapable of happiness, to boot. Daniel Hendler, who plays Ariel, finds his biggest acting challenge in attempting to force a smile for a photo.

Most films -- and most thirtysomethings -- would be more interested in this single man's love life than his relationship with his father. While writer/director Burman gives Ariel both a sex partner (Silvina Bosco) and an ex-girlfriend who was supposedly the love of his life (Melina Petriella), the ex gets one scene, and then Ariel gets back to brooding about his father. The film's big moments come after Dad (Jorge D'Elia, who's excellent) returns from Israel, prompting Ariel to run like hell from the strong old man. There's no autumn for this patriarch.

Lost Embrace's setting, the "Babel" of the mall, is potentially strong, its polyglot nature an apt metaphor for the increasingly borderless world of the 21st century. As the film progresses, Ariel gradually comes to know a little more about his fellow mall denizens (including a Korean couple who fled the homeland to marry) and a lot more about his past, as he begins breaking down his mother's evasions and gets to know his grandmother (Rosita Londner) -- who, he learns, had been a cabaret singer in prewar Poland. Once she starts singing again, she never stops. Unfortunately, most of the mall dwellers are simple comic types, and Burman never lets us know them as we should. The film itself has no national identity and plays like a stateless European export. There's but one character with some evident Indian blood, and he's the only physical laborer we see. It's an Argentine L'Auberge Espagnole, with the espagnole kept to a bare minimum.

Lost Embrace's great strengths are its scripting and dialogue, which is flavorful even with subtitles. Ariel's lover measures time in units of "sometime," as opposed to minutes or hours; "Then the Nazis came and killed them all" is a slap-in-the-face punch line to a charming story of the old lost Europe. The film is divided into chapters, like Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, and Burman shares with Allen a facility with witty and pointed scenarios, as well as the aforementioned insular lack of interest in cultures outside his own. One key difference: Woody makes films about himself and women, not himself and Pops.

For whatever reason of economy or fashion, Burman chose to shoot all of Lost Embrace in Dogme-style shaky-cam, tripodless and with natural lighting and sound (maybe Allen's Husbands and Wives was the inspiration here). This technique is effective in movies designed to probe the emotional range of their casts and wrest honesty from dishonest characters -- Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration or Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners come to mind. But it can just as easily be used to insult the very notion of psychology, as with a provocateur like Lars von Trier, or to lazily fake screen reality in pseudo-documentaries like Open Water. At those moments, it's merely artistic nudity as a disguise.

Burman is too naive to be so dishonest, but as all of the film's characters are more or less types, rather than rounded human beings, the hand-held camerawork simply gets in the way of enjoying the fiction. There was never really any truth at stake. Lost Embraceplays in the end like a clever script with very good dialogue and very bad photography.

Pleasant though it is, the film's sentiment never makes it from page to stage. There are doubtless many who will disagree, who will find the father-son relationship very moving. It's worth noting that Hendler's performance, all glum and uncomfortable throughout, earned him a Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival. Maybe the jury had dad issues, too.

 
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