For a story where faith plays a pivotal role, it’s appropriate that two of the pivotal characters in “The Tenth Man” are perpetually off-screen. Just as writer/director Daniel Burman asks us to understand people and ideas we cannot see, the story of a middle-aged Jewish man’s Buenos Aires homecoming becomes defined by what keeps its attention. Focusing on the personal, it keeps its scope small, to mostly compelling effect.
Home from New York for the week before Purim, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) spends most of his days reconnecting with the Jewish neighborhood in the Argentinian capital, forestalling an eventual reunion with his estranged father Usher. As the days pass before the holiday, Ariel offers his time at Usher’s charity, making deliveries to hospital patients and negotiating with the local butcher. Through his efforts to help out, Ariel spends more time with Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a young woman whose Orthodox beliefs restrict any physical contact between them and leaves Ariel talking to a silent partner. Whether at the charity office or in her kitchen over a late-night meal, Ariel’s various attempts to crack through and get her to speak to him end up illuminating his communication shortcomings with important figures in his life.
That communication breakdown is the centerpiece of the film’s interesting relationship to technology. Ariel’s dancer girlfriend (along with Usher, the other central unseen character), a continent away back in Ariel’s adopted home of New York City, solely exists as the other end of a Skype transmission. Phone calls continuously upend the flow of Ariel reacclimating to his community — at one point, when his cell phone is stolen, the eventual result isn’t chaos or disappointment, but a gateway into a new part of the neighborhood.
As much as it focuses on religious identity, “The Tenth Man” balances discussions of faith with a clear portrait of city life. Early on after his arrival, Ariel passes a public memorial for the 1994 attack on the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. His walks around town, whether in the bustle of daylight or deserted streets after dark, capture the spirit of the neighborhood as effectively as his new fellow worshippers help acquaint him with religious customs he’s forsaken.
On a personal and communal level, “The Tenth Man” thrives on showing how responsibility passes through generations. As Purim approaches, Ariel prepares for a reunion with Usher that might never come, along the way reconnecting with the cultural and religious tenets valued by his father. But we also see Ariel connecting with the difficult personality traits that may have underlined their rift in the first place, like his hypocritical outburst at his girlfriend spending an increased amount of time with one of her ballet co-stars.
Despite the vibrant culture underneath, there’s a general digital haze over the film as the mundanity of day-to-day operation leads to more muted tones. Burman indulges a nostalgic flashback, recreating a scene from Ariel’s childhood with a home movie sequence. It’s a dreamy sequence at odds with the grounded, non-showy photography of Buenos Aires, but it does hint at what Ariel stands to regain from an in-person heart-to-heart with his father.
“The Tenth Man” is unremarkable, but in a way that highlights the simplicity of its story, rather than signaling a lack of inspiration. It has patience to spare, letting this representative week before Purim play out in individual chapters marked by the days of the week. None of these days contain any seismic shifts in Ariel’s relationship with how he sees the world. But like Ariel’s late-movie choice that gives the film its title, “The Tenth Man” is the satisfying result of a natural series of glimpses into a slowly-changing life.
“The Tenth Man” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 5.