Only Human (Seres Queridos) (2004)

2006-06-16 (Limited release)

Only Human (Seres Queridos) examines conflicted feelings about “home.” When Leni Dali (Marián Aguilera) brings her Palestinian fiancé, Rafi (Guillermo Toledo), home to meet her Spanish-Jewish family, the jokes are both obvious and complex, as they Dali family struggles to understand and accept one another.

A kooky romantic comedy directed by a married couple — Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri — Only Human is also an increase-the-peace allegory. Leni returns home to Madrid as an adult child, where she feels simultaneously comfortable and guarded. The film’s shaky camerawork and overlapping, Altman-esque sound design suggest the way she feels, re-immersed amid her bickering, “zany” family.

The introduction of Rafi, a Muslim, into this mix brings to the surface political and religious tensions, complicating the movie’s inclination toward Meet the Parents-type clichés. Luckily, the intensity and sweetness of Leni and Rafi’s love (made visible at the outset with a tender quickie in the elevator on the way up to the folks’) provide viewers with a point of identification. This helps alleviate the tedium of predictable plot events, as when Rafi gets the stink eye from Leni’s mother Gloria (Norma Aleandro), who resents that he doesn’t eagerly eat the dinner she’s served.

Faced with such opposition, Leni can’t seem to decide whether she doesn’t care what her parents think of Rafi or if she will lie to avoid their judgments. She ultimately does both (more than once), her dilemma reflecting the sorts of sacrifices we all make to belong somewhere, whether that somewhere is in a family, a marriage, a church, or a homeland.

In the film, these themes are rarely discussed outright, but roil under the surface of conversations and near-confrontations. When Gloria urges her to try on one of her old unflattering dresses, Leni obliges and keeps wearing it until her sister Tania (María Botto), swoops in and insists she remove it; the scene shows the daughters’ shared desire not to become their mother. Gloria’s own difficulty with changing mores is revealed in an exchange with her six-year-old granddaughter Paula (Alba Molinero), who reprimands her for spraying bugs in the kitchen, because “killing is wrong.” “Not always,” Grandma explains, as she sweeps away the dead bugs. Coming as it does just before Rafi’s arrival, the scene establishes Gloria’s sense of territory, and the resistance he’ll meet.

Other scenes are similarly allegorical. When grandfather Dudu (Max Berliner), a blind war veteran, comes upon a bandaged duckling now living in the Dalis’ bidet, he wields his rifle and genitals with hilarious pride. And then comes the soup. When Rafi aims to make nice by helping Mama Dali defrost a gallon of frozen soup, he inadvertently drops it out of the 10th-floor apartment window, injuring a man on the sidewalk below, a man who may or may not be Papa Dali. The assignation of “home” is both forceful and confused: when mama’s homemade soup becomes a lethal weapon, wielding by an interloper, who’s to blame for the ensuing umbrage?

As a result of Rafi’s soup blunder, the family is divided, though all are determined to protect the home. The ruckus has consequences. A downstairs neighbor (Balbino Acosta), draped in a jacket with an EU flag, confronts the Dalis with complaints of “inappropriate behavior in a civil community.” When he waves a chunk of plaster as evidence of their shenanigans, they slam their door in his face. The Dalis’ message is clear: this home stuff is hard to negotiate, and outsiders have no business interfering.

When fighting kitchen insects and threatening neighbors, the family finds purpose and unity. Ultimately, however, Only Human is sitcommish and unsatisfying, its humor crass and its resolutions pat.

Only HumanTheatrical Trailer

RATING 5 / 10