Lost Embrace (El Abrazo Partido) Review

Daniel Burman’s small independent film El Abrazo Partido is modest in its ambitions. A story of family ties and discovering one’s place in the world, it manages to tell this story with a great deal of sensitivity and humour, while scarcely leaving the confines of a single little ground-level shopping arcade in Buenos Aires.

The galería, in the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, is host to a number of little businesses – a hairdresser’s, a tailor’s, a Feng Shui shop, a fast-food stall - all of which have seen better times, but somehow still manage to struggle on. The same could be said of the owners of these establishments. Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler) works for his mother Sonia (Adriana Aizenburg) in the family’s lingerie store, and is feeling lost and out of place in the small confines of the shopping centre. Trying to find a way out, he looks to his grandmother’s European heritage and applies for Polish citizenship, but rather half-heartedly. Deep down his identity problem stems from his childhood and the father he has never known, Elias Makaroff (Jorge D'Elía), who ran out on his family when Ariel was little more than a newborn child, leaving to fight in the war in Israel. His knowledge of his father is confined to fragmentary memories, an anecdotal story of him breaking a jar of mayo in a fast-food bar and his mother’s relating of the experience to an old war movie (De Sica’s ‘Sunflower’).

A young man’s search for identity and the ‘lost embrace’ of a father he has never known, the theme of El Abrazo Partido is not the most original, but its charm lies rather more in its characterisation and performances. Filmed episodically as a series of little minor events and encounters, the film relies on the same dry observational humour of other recent South American successes - fellow Argentinean Pablo Trapero’s Familia Rodante and Pablo Stoll and Jan Pablo Rebella’s Whisky from neighbouring Uruguay. The film has a similar edge of surreality in how it captures Ariel’s maladroit attempt to convince the Polish consul in Buenos Aires of his desire to be a Pole and in the importance that the store owners place on their delivery man Ramón’s ability to win a trolley race with a neighbouring arcade, but it’s also highly effective in the simple observations of the everyday embarrassing situations of a son meeting his mother’s new boyfriend for the first time, the awkwardness of a meeting with an old girlfriend and Ariel’s attempts to carry on an affair with an older woman who works in a neighbouring shop, under the watchful and knowing eyes of everyone there.

The playing-out of these simple situations is assisted considerably by some well-judged and understated performances. The central casting and well-defined roles of Ariel and his mother Sonia carries much of film in this way, but they are well supported by the varied, authentic personalities and characters that inhabit the arcade. All are brilliantly defined and, like the Korean couple who have settled into the arcade as outsiders with their Feng Shui shop to the grandmother who has escaped from the holocaust in Europe, they each contribute in their own humorous way to the film’s central premise of finding one’s place in the world and reaching an accommodation with one’s past - all of them evidently a microcosm for Argentinean society and its own search for identity. Perhaps almost inevitably, the writer and director’s fondness for this bunch of misfits leads them to wrap things up a little too neatly and warmly in this respect, but it does so without contrivance or manipulation of the true motivations and nature of the characters, fully capturing the wonderful humour, contradictions and complications inherent in this unusual multicultural Jewish-Argentinean community.

Lost Embrace is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Much of Lost Embrace is filmed on handheld camera, which is a little unsettling at first, but it doesn’t take long to settle down into its rhythm. The transfer itself is quite stable (although some minor telecine wobble can be seen in the titles of each chapter), and the handheld look gives the film a DV appearance, with a hint of grain and slight natural softness, but there is fine detail, clarity and tone to the image, which is clean and free from any kind of marks or artefacts. Shot mostly in interiors, colours are also about as good as you would expect. If there are any minor marks I didn’t see them, so they would not be significant to affect the rating of the picture, which could hardly be better.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is similarly as good as it needs to be – clear and accurate, serving its function without any flair.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. The white font is reasonably well sized and placed in the frame. A couple of symbols such as $ and inverted commas don’t seem to have converted across well, but this is infrequent and a minor issue. Some fixed subtitles translating Korean into Spanish remain on the print, the English subtitles moving to the top of the screen to accommodate them. This only occurs briefly on one section of the film.

The Making Of The Lost Embrace (14:16) is little more than the standard Electronic Press Kit featurette, but it provides some useful background information on the film and those behind it. As you would expect from this kind of feature, it shows the lead actors on-set explaining their characters and what happens to them in the film, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of the film being shot and a couple of clips from the film. The Stills Gallery presents 17 stills which seem to be taken directly from the film. An Interview with Daniel Burman (12:33) is taken from ‘The South Bank Show’ programme about Argentinean cinema. The interview is very informative on how these themes are developed in Burman’s films and how they relate to Argentinean society. Some clips from his earlier film Waiting For The Messiah show familiar characters, a preoccupation with similar themes and the same sense of humour. Together with his latest film Family Law, the three films comprise a kind of trilogy on the theme of finding one’s identity.

Lost Embrace is simply a lovely little film, modest in its ambition, but assured in its execution. Filmed naturalistically, the writer/director Daniel Burman knows there’s enough in the characters and their situation to allow the film’s storyline to develop without contrivance – at least until he feels the need to wrap things up neatly for the ending – and with a great deal of humour. Axiom’s DVD release of the film is excellent, providing an almost flawless transfer and some interesting and informative extra features.

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