The Moral Dilemma of Burman’s “Lost Embrace”
by Howard Feinstein
The father of thirtysomething protagonist Ariel Makaroff in Argentinian auteur Daniel Burman‘s exquisite “Lost Embrace” (Silver Bear, 2004 Berlin Film Festival) left his family and country to fight for Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. He settled on a kibbutz and didn’t return to his family in Buenos Aires. Ariel’s obsession with the absent parent is at the root of his nearly total lack of ambition. The young man has built a narrative around his dad, Elias, that turns out to be off-base. I asked Burman when he was in New York recently to explain whether the father is a hero or a coward.
“I built the whole story around a moral dilemma: someone who leaves his family to go fight for an ideal,” the 31-year-old director explains. “Is he a son of a bitch or a hero? For me it’s clear: He’s a son of a bitch. There is no reason in the world to shirk the responsibility of helping your children to know who they are.”
“For me the relationship between a father and a son is fascinating,” he continues. “With a mother, it is natural, spontaneous. But between father and son, it is unnatural, absolutely artificial. You must teach your son that you are the father. Ariel hadn’t seen his father since he was a baby, and when he returns, he is very different from the concept Ariel had constructed. They must rebuild their relationship. When you discover your father is different from what you thought, it changes your point of view toward life in general.” The embrace between father and son at the end of the film is tentative. “It’s not an American movie,” says Burman, laughing. He explains that the Spanish title of the film, “Un Abrazo Partido,” translates into “ALMOST an embrace.”
“Lost Embrace” is set today in the Once district of Buenos Aires. Once is the Jewish neighborhood in the city with the largest Jewish population in Latin America. Ariel, played by the multitalented Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler (Best Actor, Berlin), has been working for the past 10 years for his mother in the family’s lingerie shop located in a galeria, one of the small, enclosed shopping centers containing little shops that dot Buenos Aires. Many of the stores have been owned by the same families for many years; the galerias are communities of sorts, different from our malls. Unfortunately, the recent economic crisis is Argentina has resulted in the closure of many. Burman had to rent a galeria that had been vacant for three years and dress it up as a functioning entity. It is located two blocks from the house in Once where he spent his first 20 years.
Ariel, a high-strung young man who can barely keep still, dropped out of architectural school and is killing time. (His voiceover frequently describes characters and events.) Like many Argentinians during the crisis, he has applied for a foreign passport in an attempt to escape the financial crunch (in his case, Poland, something Burman himself did when the economy began bottoming out). On another level, he is trying to run away from finding himself and from the responsibilities of adulthood. In the meantime, he hangs around the characters who run and work in the various shops (he toys around with a young woman from the store across the say in one of the Makaroff’s dressing cubicles), offering us a glimpse of life as it was lived in these multicultural environments — “with a 10-year delay,” says Burman. He is alluding to the fact that many of the remaining galerias no longer have the ethnic and religious diversity that characterized them, but instead are populated mainly by recent Korean and Chinese immigrants. “All of the people worked together without any problems of intolerance,” he says. Their idiomatic speech is colorful, and they often speak at the same time, much as people do in real life.
Ariel is a pest. He constantly pumps his poor mother, his older brother, as well as his grandmother and even the rabbi for information about his lost father. He has no control. (Incidentally, even the rabbi, having found a post in Miami, is getting out of the country.)
Burman makes clear that the film is about the search for the father and not about the economic crisis (which his second feature, the 2000 “Waiting for the Messiah,” dealt with somewhat more directly). “The situation is much worse than when I made “Messiah.” Americans and Europeans think that when we make a movie in Argentina today, it is important how much you show the crisis. But in Argentina — we live!!” He laughs. “When I make a movie, I don’t think of it as a policy, like, I want to put the crisis in 30% of the movie. I want to tell a story. The crisis is sometimes visible, other times invisible. When I build a character, I work with parts of reality, like the crisis, but it’s unconscious. I HATE to use the crisis to sell a movie. The real crisis is that some people can not afford to eat. The movies that are made about it are really superficial.”
He shot “Lost Embrace” mainly with a handheld camera, and he frequently deploys jump cuts. He justifies his stylistic decisions. “In my earlier movies, when I chose an aesthetic, it was like a jail. I couldn’t use some scenes with the actors that were wonderful because they didn’t fit the aesthetic. With this film, I wanted to put the actors in the primary position. I used jump cuts a lot because in post I wanted to use the best of the actors without worrying whether or not I needed a perfect cut. I also sometimes used the jump cut for punctuation.”
Talking about the handheld, he says, “In the previous movies, I was so dogmatic about how I would work frame by frame. Sometimes when you put a lot of things between the actor and the camera, like dollies or special lenses, you add distance. It was my decision to put all of the energy, all of the time, and all of the money into the work of the actors.”
The film is infused with both humor (often absurd, like the race on the street between two manual laborers who run while pushing dollies laden with large boxes) and tragedy (the revelation of the truth of his parents’ relationship, for example, not to mention the occasional reference to the economic situation). “Yes, that’s part of our Jewish culture,” explains Burman. “Like the crisis, it’s something very natural and part of my life. It’s not like, I think I will do a movie with 50% tragedy and 50% comedy.” He has frequently been compared to Woody Allen. “That’s true, but it’s exaggerated and a simplification,” he says. “Of course I’m proud to hear it, because Woody Allen is the auteur I admire most in American cinema. The big difference is that the characters in his movies live in apartments that cost at least $2 million, and their fridges are always full.”
The film is loaded with Judaica: the Talmud, circumcision, folk dancing, decorative objects. Ariel’s grandmother even begins a marathon of Yiddish song. Burman, who is married and has two young children, says that these are the inevitable result of his Jewish background. “My family was not religious, but they liked the iconography of Jewish culture, and the food, but they didn’t observe the holidays. The house of the mother in the movie is actually my own mother’s house: she has every Jewish thing imaginable in there.”
Not surprisingly, Burman’s next film, “Family Law” focuses on another father-son relationship, one very different from the fractured one in “Lost Embrace.” “Both are lawyers,” says Burman, whose own parents are lawyers. “The son can’t put together his own identity because he works with his father, who is a perfect lawyer. He can’t reproach his parents on anything: They are perfect. Having such high expectations hinders the son from discovering his identity, really getting out of adolescence and growing up. Then the father dies unexpectedly. The son can finally begin the journey of finding himself.
“Daniel Hendler plays the son again, but I don’t have the father yet,” he adds. He lets out a hearty laugh. “I want Woody Allen, but I don’t know if he’ll do it for $30,000.”