Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler) is a cauldron of angst. His unpromising job at the lingerie boutique run by his emotionally volatile mother is just one of the reasons he so desperately covets a ticket out of Buenos Aires. His restlessness, we learn early on in Daniel Burman’s at times Woody Allenesque comedy, Lost Embrace, has its roots in the estranged father who left the barely one-year-old Ariel to fight in the Yom Kippur War and never returned. This father-son chasm is ultimately a microcosm of a generational rift that is at once specific to this Argentine Jewish family and yet also “universal.”
Ariel has never seen his father, Elias (Jorge D’Elía), unless you count the shadow faintly discernible in the home movie of Ariel’s circumcision. His father’s abandonment fills Ariel not only with resentment but also curiosity. Ariel knows his father lost an arm in the war, which further enhances the man’s mysteriousness. To many, the thought of one’s father losing a limb in a war would be a source of pride, a testament to the old man’s courage. Considering the Yom Kippur War was precipitated by a surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria, one would think that even more heroic connotations would attach themselves to the man who made the sacrifice for such a worthy cause.
But Ariel belongs to a generation for which the grand of idea of political engagement means little, and thus he is incapable of sympathizing with his father and the fateful decision he made. Instead, Ariel believes his father’s desertion was triggered by his dread of the stultifying routines and responsibilities associated with married life. We realize that he is projecting his own fears onto his absent father when Ariel’s ex-girlfriend Estela (Melina Petriella) reminds him that their breakup was caused by we what commonly refer to as commitment “issues.” This is the kind of film that will often summon your psychoanalytic skills. Burman is not only channeling Woody Allen but also a good deal of Freud.
Ariel’s historical and political naiveté is most glaring when he talks about his desire to leave Argentina for Poland and become an idealized “European.” His yearning to become a Polish citizen betrays an unpardonable ignorance about the terrible history of Jews in Europe, particularly in Poland. The scene in which Ariel tries to obtain his grandmother’s Polish passport powerfully exposes the lacunae in his historical memory. To establish his Polish lineage for the purpose of gaining citizenship, Ariel needs the passport of his reclusive grandmother (Rosita Londner). Having fled Poland during the Holocaust, she is very much haunted by her past, evidenced by her failed attempt to set fire to her passport. History matters, this scene reminds us. Lest we forget, many European Jews once foolishly believed that assimilation would inoculate them from anti-Semitism. This is a lesson evidently lost on Ariel and his generation.
The climactic reunion of father and son seems to hold out hope for the possibility of generational understanding. Briefly paralyzed by the sight of his father and his missing arm, Ariel sprints away - one of a handful of scenes when we see him dashing furiously through crowded streets as the unsteadiness of the hand-held camera amplifies his desperation. These unassuming scenes work almost subconsciously on us to reinforce the image of Ariel in the throes of an unremitting anxiety. It is only when Ariel’s mother unbosoms a deeply guarded secret that he agrees to meet with his father. When we see them strolling down the street, Elias’s arm on his son’s shoulder, we realize that it’s the first time Ariel is not walking apace. The promise of reconciliation is clearly cathartic. Eschewing the comforting certitude of a Hollywood ending, the film prefers to dangle before us the possibility of reconciliation, perhaps to remind us of the gulf that separates father and son.
Ariel’s witty meditation on his Jewish identity and his over-protective, melodramatic mother naturally put us in mind of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. But Ariel and the rest of the film’s ensemble are far from stereotypes. Possessed of a certain Argentine élan, these characters are undeniably original. And despite its preoccupation with Jewish themes, the film’s appeal is due in no small measure to its celebration of multiculturalism. Whether it’s the Korean couple who run the feng shui boutique, or Ramon (Juan José Flores Quispe), the Peruvian fellow who works for Ariel’s brother, the film treats the proverbial “other” with a palpable tenderness. It’s this unmistakable pluralism that gives a Lost Embrace its warmth and generosity.