New Yorker Films // 2004 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joe Armenio (Retired) // July 28th, 2006
"It's an example of any community in our country, something that is so
natural for us, but maybe it is not so natural someplace else."
-- Daniel Burman
Argentinian filmmaker Daniel Burman is often compared to Woody Allen, and there are indeed some similarities: both are Jewish and concerned with what it means to be Jewish, and both have an essentially comic sensibility within which they explore serious questions about human relationships. Beyond that, though, Lost Embrace didn't feel especially Allen-esque to me, mostly because Burman is interested in evoking a particular place (a somewhat rundown, multiethnic outdoor shopping mall in Buenos Aires), whereas Allen's films take place in a stylized New York (or London, these days) that has never really existed outside of the filmmaker's imagination (I don't say this as a criticism of Allen; both techniques are valid). Burman is also less jokey than Allen; his humor is more casual and observational.
Argentina has never been thought of as a particularly fertile place for cinema, but in Lucrecia Martel and Burman it has recently produced two filmmakers whose films have achieved at least a bit of notice here (if you haven't seen Martel's brilliant The Holy Girl yet, check it out). Burman is in his early 30s and has already made five feature films, of which Lost Embrace is the first I've seen, and the first available on Region 1 DVD. Its hero is Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler, Whisky), a thirtyish descendant of Polish immigrants who works in his mother's lingerie shop. He has recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend (Melina Petriella) and is carrying on a dalliance with Rita (Silvina Bosco), a sexy older woman who may or may not be married to her elderly boss. His mother is a kindly if somewhat deluded woman and his older brother is an importer-exporter, handling a wide array of useless trinkets. Ariel wants to be an artist and has been planning to leave Buenos Aires for Europe; it soon becomes clear that he is stuck and aimless because he is still troubled over the fact that his father left the family shortly after his birth, ostensibly to fight in the Israeli army. Although Ariel deeply resents his father, he finds himself following his example by planning to escape Buenos Aires and by leaving his girlfriend out of a vague fear of falling into a rut. The desire to escape is seen as both existential and specifically Jewish; both Ariel and his father (and his grandparents as well, who fled Poland and the Holocaust) are rootless people looking for a home (the eternal role of the Jews). They're also restless seekers who flee a life of habit and need intense experiences. Ariel's attempt to leave is complicated when he learns that his father might be returning to Buenos Aires. Of course, our hero won't be able to make anything of his life until he makes peace with his father's decision and his attempts to do so make up the film's rather predictable narrative arc.
At the very least, Lost Embrace introduces us to a multiethnic Argentina of which most Americans will not be aware. Most of the film is set in the bustling, ramshackle space of the mall, and Burman wants this to be a film which introduces us to a number of people's stories. I think he falls short; the supporting characters, consisting of various shopkeepers and hangers-on, more often then not are tritely, tediously quirky, and it seems that most of them exist not as characters in their own right but as mechanisms by which to understand Ariel's story. It's as if Burman was afraid to make a true ensemble film and retreated into a safer narrative strategy which focuses on a single protagonist.
Ariel himself is not an especially interesting figure: he's an overly familiar fictional type, aimless, libidinous, and neurotic. Burman expects the audience to invest itself emotionally in his journey and it's unclear why they should do so, since he spends much of the film in an adolescent funk, self-absorbed and mopey, without much regard for anyone else. A community is portrayed here, but it exists only to illuminate one character, so the film feels blinkered and narcissistic.
Burman's style doesn't help much either. We have a lot of shaky handheld camerawork, pointless jump cuts, and zooms: clichéd attempts to convey bustle and urgency. In one scene, Ariel delivers a philosophical monologue to a friend and, instead of fixing the camera on the speaker, Burman films the scene with jump cut after jump cut, as if he would lose the audience's attention if he went five seconds without an edit or a camera move.
New Yorker presents the film in an anamorphic transfer, with optional English subtitles. The only extra is a 14-minute featurette about the making of the film. Burman, Handler, and Melina Petriella are interviewed (oddly enough, since Ms. Petriella is only in the film for one scene; she's also on the DVD cover, an understandable bit of deception, since having a pretty girl on the cover has probably never hurt DVD sales). The featurette is fairly standard promotional stuff, with the actors and filmmakers describing the plot, praising each other, and so on.
Burman's a young man, and Lost Embrace feels like a young man's film in its combination of self-absorption and eagerness to please. I'm glad New Yorker has made it available, though, and in the coming years I hope American audiences will get to see if Burman can steer his obvious vitality and energy into richer films.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Featurette: "The Making of Lost Embrace"