A few years ago I used the term “neo-shtetlism” to describe those movies, among other artworks, that wistfully imagined a lost Jewish past in the hamlets of Eastern Europe or, alternatively, transposed the presumed social structures of that past to a modern locale. Philip Roth’s latest novel, The Plot Against America, is a complex version of the latter tendency; so is the Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman’s fourth feature, Lost Embrace.
Lost Embrace, which played at the New York Jewish Film Festival a couple weeks ago and starts its theatrical run this Friday, is set in the funky Buenos Aires district known as El Once (“The Eleventh”), a dense—if dwindling—conglomeration of dry-goods emporiums, sewing factories, and dairy restaurants that, still populated by immigrant Jews and their children, is B.A.’s equivalent of the old Lower East Side. Confining the action to a few blocks and using a nervous camera to crowd in on his subjects, Burman creates the illusion of an urban village that’s at once entropic and teeming with energy. (It’s not Once per se so much as Once ‘pon a Time.)
Burman’s main location is referred to as a mall—although that seems a grandiose term for the shabby three- or four-story building that houses a number of shops, stalls, and office cubicles. Rather than a mall, the place is a vertical shtetl, and indeed, Lost Embrace is populated by a host of comic types—the hapless luftmensch, pompous rebbe, shiksa temptress, abandoned wife, foolish Chaim Yankel, Polish official, elderly suitor, and humble lamedvovnik—who would be comfortably at home in Sholom Aleichem’s Anatevka. The movie’s breezy repartee is not nearly as funny as the atmosphere of perpetual hondling. Even the Korean greenhorns seem like Jewish stock characters. The protagonist, Ariel (Daniel Hendler), is another sort—a college dropout, slightly dull and a bit spoiled, who longs to escape from behind the counter of his mother’s tiny lingerie store.
The mall has its own legends, and in addition to these, Ariel is haunted by childhood stories, memories of his absent father, and (in a cineaste touch) Vittorio DeSica’s 1970 World War II separation drama Sunflower. There’s also a vivid bit where the diffident hero wanders into an Once auditorium inhabited by the lively ghosts of the Yiddish theater. Hendler played a similar character, also named Ariel, in Burman’s 2000 comedy Waiting for the Messiah; the angelic Melina Petriella, who played the first Ariel’s childhood sweetheart, reappears here as his jilted fiancée, pregnant by someone else.
For anyone who has seen Waiting for the Messiah, Lost Embrace unfolds in a parallel universe where Ariel has the same diffident personality but a different family constellation (and where at least Ariel’s long-lost father, if not the Messiah, returns). The subdued magic realism extends to the film’s chronology as well. References to economic crisis and the reverse immigration of young Argentines returning to the countries their great-grandparents left decades before locate the movie in 2001 or 2002. But, if that’s the case, the crucial plot device of infant Ariel abandoned by a father off to defend Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War would render the hero nearly a decade older than his presumed age.
Does it matter? Despite an absurdly melodramatic premise, Lost Embrace is an essentially plotless series of riffs and jokes. It’s 20 minutes too long—forgivable in view of Burman’s affection for his material. Lost Embrace is Burman’s second Once-set feature; he also made a 42-minute documentary about the aftermath of the unsolved (or rather unpunished) 1994 terrorist bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, which killed 85 people, destroyed the community archives, and left Argentine Jewry with their very own 9-11 trauma. If memory serves, the empty lot where the modest structure of AMIA once stood is virtually around the corner from the mall where most of Lost Embrace takes place. That this absence is neither glimpsed nor mentioned gives another twist to the movie’s sense of enchanted temporality.
It is as though the assault on Once has yet to happen or, perhaps, never will. The impulse underlying Lost Embrace may not be Ariel’s desire to grow up and leave home so much as his author’s wish to make time stand still.