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.