I’ve heard Argentines say that Buenos Aires is more densely populated by psychoanalysts than anyplace else in the world. Whether there’s truth to this boast (if it is a boast), I don’t know; but something must be on the mind of a city that can produce Lost Embrace, a film that presents actual footage of a ritual circumcision, then introduces a long-absent father who is missing one arm.
Vanished body parts, vanished parents and lovers, a whole society that vanished in Eastern Europe: These are the ghosts that haunt this ambling comedy of neighborhood life in Buenos Aires. The neighborhood in this case is an indoor mall: little more than a twisting, up-and-down hallway lined with seven or eight glassy storefronts. Given the modesty of this setting, the shopkeepers’ main business consists of looking in on one another. They visit, gossip, spy and tease; and while they are so engaged, the main character snoops and kibitzes with us.
He is Ariel (Daniel Hendler), a shaggily handsome young fellow with a rolling gait and an almost psychoanalytic urge toward self-explanation. He opens the film by giving a voiceover tour of the mall, as a handheld camera follows the back of his head down the hallway, past the storefronts, to his mother’s lingerie shop. As he will soon relate, he was the baby in that circumcision footage–an infant whose father deserted right after the ceremony, in 1973, and has lived in Israel ever since, to Ariel’s infinite resentment.
As Lost Embrace begins, Ariel is planning his own disappearance from Buenos Aires. He hopes to settle in Europe, which he figures he can do as a Polish citizen, thanks to some documents preserved by his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. That Ariel maybe hasn’t thought through this scheme becomes plain during his double-talk interview with a Polish consul, who looks at the creased, fragile papers and asks if the young man is perhaps of Israelite descent. “No, no, not all Jews are Israelis, most are just Jews,” Ariel sputters, with alarm in his eyes at being found out. Then he names, in excruciatingly correctible form, the many admirable Poles who have moved him to reclaim his heritage: Lech Walesa, Frederic Chopin and, um, of course him–as the camera locates the office’s portrait of John Paul II.
A dismal effort–but with a callousness that fits him as awkwardly as his strutting sailor’s walk, Ariel is willing to dismiss a whole country’s worth of Jewish ghosts, if by doing so he can get out of Buenos Aires. To him, this is enough of a place of mourning: for the girlfriend he dumped, the college he dropped out of, the father he never knew and the brave, birdlike little mother (Adriana Aizenberg) who on a daily basis kills Ariel with her lack of complaints.
Written, directed and produced by Daniel Burman, Lost Embrace is the opposite of a comedy of ignorance. It gets its laughs from Ariel’s inability to remain clueless. Does Rita, the erotic distraction next door, have a lover besides Ariel, one who is more important because he bankrolls her shop? Ariel can neither hold back from asking her nor admit that he hears the answer. Is his mother really a full-time martyr, or does she get more out of her folk-dance evenings than folk dancing? When evidence of not-so-secret fun walks in the door, Ariel brusquely tries to shove it–him–right back out. In a culture of psychoanalysis, such determined, failing efforts to overlook the obvious may be tagged as neurosis. In film comedy, they’re opportunities: occasions when a clever actor like Hendler can get the audience to laugh (but not look down) at him.
The film’s other main source of fun, of course, is the community in which Ariel lives. These characters start out as an ensemble–voluble and strong-featured, but clumped in the background–and then become, through episodes of excitability, a set of individuals, each with a distinct presence. In other words, Ariel comes to admit that he knows these people and likes them. Fortunately, this process goes forward without ever being named. Burman just lets it happen, loosely and casually, in the same unassuming fashion with which he slaps frames around his shots.
The effect might even be a little too relaxed. When a filmmaker concentrates so lovingly on a man’s desires, while women serve mostly as illustrations; when the little society that the film creates seems cantankerous but without any hint of real danger; when the multitudinous closeups, so convenient for home video, threaten to become monotonous, and the solution is to break up the sameness with cute chapter titles, then I begin to wish for just a bit more ambition. Burman, though, feels so easy with convention that he ultimately turns Lost Embrace into a running-man comedy, with Ariel periodically dashing along the sidewalk for no clear reason other than that Woody Allen once did it.
You see, I’m trying not to oversell. Maybe that’s a neurotic trait on my part: the anxious need to hold back an endorsement, even though I enjoyed Lost Embrace and suspect you might, too. It passes the time, and more, during a sparse month for movies. It has the merit of possessing more brains than it lets on to. And at certain high points–the revelation of the mother’s joy at folk dancing, or the sudden opening up of the grandmother, at the end, into full-voiced Yiddish song–Lost Embrace momentarily forgets its protagonist, or lets him forget himself, to revel in the women Burman loves.
In two early masterworks, Maborosi and After Life, Hirokazu Kore-eda showed us characters who pass as strangers, untouched and ghostlike, along the vital stream of everyday life. In After Life, in fact, the character really was a ghost: a sad young woman, dead for several years, who strolled by herself through a night-time crowd.
Kore-eda’s new film, Nobody Knows, once again shows us the mundane bustle as seen by someone who’s shut out of it, and for whom ordinary things are therefore achingly vivid. This time, though, Kore-eda has gone back to his roots in documentary film, to make a fiction based on a real event.
In 1988 a story broke in the Japanese press about four children who had been discovered living on their own, in increasingly desperate circumstances, after being deserted by their mother. Although their plight dragged on for months, the neighbors in their apartment building somehow remained oblivious to the very existence of three of the kids, until the youngest girl died and the authorities stepped in.
This grim set of facts has now inspired Kore-eda to make a moving, meditative, sometimes painful but decidedly not grim drama set in present-day Tokyo, about 12-year-old Akira (Yagira Yuya) and his three younger siblings. When first seen, the littlest of the kids are in fact laughing goofily, despite having just been sneaked into their new apartment building in suitcases. Their mother (played by a Japanese television star known as YOU), who may generously be described as free-spirited, understands that the landlord and other tenants don’t want to see or hear a lot of children running around, and her budget seems to rule out a lease in a more tolerant building; so she takes the extreme measure of concealing the kids. They treat it as a game at first; they enjoy putting one over on the neighbors. But the smallest children will not be allowed to leave the apartment at all. The older girl, 10-year-old Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), is permitted to venture as far as the apartment’s tiny balcony, because she’s in charge of the laundry and that’s where the washing machine is installed. Only Akira has the right to wander the streets, so he can shop for groceries and do other errands. These chores multiply when mom airily runs off, leaving behind only a small stack of thousand-yen bills and a note saying she’ll be away for a while.
From this point on, Nobody Knows becomes the story of Akira’s struggle to meet impossible responsibilities. A naturally studious boy (though denied a chance to go to school), he is too smart to keep his burden a secret; but since none of the adults he approaches is willing to intervene, and since he’s afraid the authorities would separate him from his siblings, he carries on as best he can for as long as he can. It’s amazing to see how well he does. It’s profoundly touching, and strangely cheering as well, to see the pleasure he and his self-imprisoned siblings take in one another and in their few favorite things: a toy piano, a stuffed bunny rabbit, bowls of instant ramen, slippers that squeak when you walk.
With his keen interest in weather and the changing light, Kore-eda dwells not only on the kids’ deteriorating lives but on their course through the seasons. (He shot Nobody Knows in sequence over a full year, from autumn through summer, during which time Yagira Yuya’s voice changed.) And with his extraordinary eye for composition, Kore-eda makes the film not only a moral study of Akira but also a visual marvel. Strong, graphic lines–the poles and wires of a streetscape, the curve of a river embankment, the risers of a tall stair–jut and crisscross and meander through the frame, taking your eyes on intricate journeys while pulling together the deep, contrasting layers of activity and unoccupied space. The images combine the tension and repose of great chamber music; and thanks to Kore-eda’s astonishing talent, they just keep pouring out.
And pouring. Although Nobody Knows takes the passage of time as one of its themes, it maybe could have conveyed the experience without requiring a full 141 minutes of your life. The results do diminish, past a certain point; and when you’re given such an opportunity for leisurely contemplation, you may devote a moment or two to asking inconvenient questions about improbabilities in the story. Not that there’s much plot; but of the few details that Kore-eda has stretched over the long frame of his movie, a significant number do not hold up to inspection.
I’m sorry to say that Nobody Knows, for all its power, is probably not one of Kore-eda’s major works. If he had not made Maborosi and After Life—-
But he did. Whatever the attenuations and shortcomings of Nobody Knows, it has to be seen by anyone with more than a casual interest in film.
Screening Schedule: One of the great things about having the Museum of Modern Art back at full strength is the return of its annual “Documentary Fortnight” series. On view February 10-28, this year’s roster of recent nonfiction works looks unusually rich, especially in films from South America and the Middle East. To cite just two pictures among many, I’m looking forward to Patricio Guzmán’s feature-length Salvador Allende and Mahnaz Afzali’s The Ladies’ Room, a cinéma vérité piece shot inside a women’s washroom in Tehran. For information: www.moma.org.