El Abrazo partido
starring Daniel Hendler, Adriana Aizemberg, Jorge D'Elía, Sergio Boris
screenplay by Marcelo Birmajer, Daniel Burman
directed by Daniel Burman
Hard Goodbyes: My Father
Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou
starring Yorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli, Christos Stergioglou
written and directed by Penny Panayotopoulou
WALK ON WATER
starring Lior Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Caroline Peters, Gideon Shemer
screenplay by Gal Uchovsky
directed by Eytan Fox
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Woody Allen's been on something like a two-decade slide, so if there's a little voice in your head telling you that the last thing you need to see is an Argentine version of a Woody Allen "where's daddy" neurosis opera: listen to it. Daniel Burman's Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido) is an interminable slog through the congested headspace of one Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler), an insufferable, navel-gazing Pol expat living out his self-loathing strut and fret in the ridiculous family lingerie shop of a cut-rate shopping centre. (Yeah, it's Scenes from a Mall in Spanish.) Burman likes breaking the fourth wall, likes humourless inter-titles that separate his film into a dozen awkward sketches, and really likes dense monologues about, essentially, why no one is ever happy. The extent to which you will cotton to Lost Embrace has a lot to do with how much you enjoy wallpaper narration and old Jewish-Polish grandmothers singing homey folk songs square to the camera--how much you delight in Jewish mothers nudzhing their schlemiel sons before divesting their aggressively middle-class closets of ancient infidelities set against intra-mall flings with an Internet café bimbo. Ennui, listlessness, and gab gab gab, Lost Embrace earns the occasional moment of interest or topicality in stuff like a semi-amusing interview Ariel endures before the Polish consulate (during which he expresses admiration for the recently-deceased Polish Pope), but the film spends most of its goodwill on masturbating with a furious, chafing intensity. Oh, and it's mawkishly sentimental, too.
As is Penny Panayotopoulou's Hard Goodbyes (Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou), another film that has as its protagonist a child (a literal one this time) with an absentee father. Why, then, is it so much better? Answer lies first in a quartet of fleshed-out characters: young Elias (Yorgos Karayannis), his older brother Aris (Hristos Bouyotas), and their parents (Ioanna Tsirigouli and Stelios Mainas). Find another answer in the stone-cold fact that a nine-year-old grieving a pop who's never home is a far cry from a twenty-something loser kvetching about pop never being home. Better, Elias isn't a syrupy moppet full of precocious, dew-eyed pronouncements: When Elias snaps, he does it in a way that raises eyebrows instead of inspiring pats on the head and grown-up giggles. His unwillingness to accept that his father may never be coming home is a remarkably sure counterpoint to the more pragmatically hostile reaction of his older brother and his mother's disintegration. With all of it set against the lunar promise of America's 1969 moon-shot, this Greek drama begins to take on an allegorical, global feel--Camelot was long dead before this last reminder of its hopefulness and imagination burned through the sky. And in a similar way, reminders of dead loved ones have the capacity to surprise--after-images in clear blue skies. So although it's obviously a personal film for Panayotopoulou, there's more to it than just photo-album autobiography.
Lost Embrace, meanwhile, is an example of how easily autobiographical pictures can derail. With only Ariel sketched beyond the barest caricature (though he's swiftly identifiable as a particularly irritating type, too), what most consider one of the film's positives--its alleged warmth--I find to be its most grating failure. When an insufferable character is presented as a charmer, some kind of gentle philosophical giant housed in the body of a broken-down nebbish, it begins to resemble delusional self-regard. I don't think it's cute that Ariel's mother (Adriana Aizemberg) punctuates her prattling-on with an earth-shattering scream--and I wasn't touched by Ariel's reunion with Elias (Jorge D'Elia), his one-armed father, a man off to Israel to be maimed in a war just to, understandably, escape his wife and children. Israel is where we start in Eytan Fox's Walk on Water (not to be confused with the recent Walking on Water), as Mossad badass Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) assassinates a Palestinian bogeyman before returning home to discover that his wife has killed herself. Refusing therapy for the trauma, Eyal is also refused any juicy assignments, sent instead to tail "Kraut" Axel Himmelman (Knut Berger), the alleged grandson of an ex-Nazi (hiding out in, you guessed it, Argentina) who's on holiday to see his sister Pia (Caroline Peters). Posing as a travel agent-assigned tour guide/driver, Eyal bathes nude with Axel in oceans mentioned in the Bible, begs off doing traditional Israeli folk dances, and generally astonishes with how horrid his gay-dar is. It's comical, really--I mean this is an intelligence officer, yes? Axel is as gay as a French holiday.
The first hour of Walk on Water is great. Eyal's intolerance towards Germans is magnified in its redirection against the Palestinians, then tenfold again towards gays. He explains that his past relationships have ended poorly because Israeli men are "difficult" and then cracks a joke about how divorced he is from the real sources of his rage and disaffection. It's a loaded, brilliantly courageous thing for an Israeli film to suggest that its jealous hoarding of its own tragic history has led to a present where they've become the authors, and perhaps the villains, of another unfolding tragedy. The performances are naturalistic and the characters are complicated, while the setting has the haunted, mad feeling of a city under siege. ("Why do they always play sad music after a suicide bombing? It pisses me off!") And then Axel goes home and Eyal follows, beating up a few fag-bashers in the Berlin underground, giving away his true identity and, in a ridiculous twist, coming face-to-face with the ex-Nazi in question at a sepulchral birthday party. Another story of missing fathers (Pia's estranged from her dad, her dad is estranged from his grand-fiend dad), Walk on Water refers to a moment where Axel tries to walk on the Red Sea--and by the end of the picture, both he and Eyal (and Pia and Israel) are dangling from the cross. A tale of two movies, Walk on Water is half a gem with its legs cut out from under it by its desire to have its cake and eat it, too. The characters become as uni-dimensional as extras in a Ken Follett Cold War chiller--and another game of cloak and dagger hardly seems the way to peace, love, and understanding. Originally published: April 13, 2005.