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Issue Date:  February 18, 2005

American obsessions

Overhyped 'Aviator' palls; 'Lost Embrace' charms with its tale of Jewish life in Argentina


The first time I tried to see The Aviator, it was sold out, but I went again because it seems to be the leading candidate for Academy Award honors as best movie of the year. It doesn’t deserve it.

Not that Martin Scorsese hasn’t earned a lifetime achievement award as a director or that there isn’t mastery in the way he glamorizes the Howard Hughes story. Leonardo DiCaprio gives us an idea of what a compellingly handsome and daring young man Hughes must have been before those last years of paranoid seclusion. A harrowing plane crash conveys his irresponsibility, designer Dante Ferretti casts an art deco glow over the set pieces at fancy parties and there is a brilliant showdown scene in which Hughes turns the tables on a shady Senate critic. But either John Logan’s screenplay is only a string of famous incidents that provide little sense of character development, or I’m just not sufficiently interested in obsessive-compulsive behavior. Running almost three hours, the movie seems even longer.

DiCaprio has grown up a lot since “Titanic” but is ultimately unconvincing as the terror-stricken central figure of the ending. In too many scenes he’s only a spoiled young man who feels his money gives him the right to order others around. Though Scorsese has fun with images of the old Hollywood, he knows that Hughes’ own films, “Hell’s Angels” and “The Outlaw,” are only sensationalistic junk. The hero’s mania for detail is convincing, but his constant womanizing seems almost comic in the light of his obsession with cleanliness. At one point we even see him hiding in the bathroom, afraid to touch the doorknob because he is without his favorite bar of soap. Following the tradition of movie psychology, it’s all made the fault of Hughes’ mother, although teaching her small son to spell “quarantine” as she sponges him in a tub doesn’t have the resonance that “Rosebud” gave “Citizen Kane.”

The contemporary actresses who play Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) will make most viewers yearn for the old days. Hepburn has the biggest feminine role, and Blanchett has been praised in it; for me her impersonation seemed a trick that soon grew wearing. The film is more successful in capturing the ambience of the period, its music and zany singers. Alan Alda is memorable as the senator for sale, and Alec Baldwin is persuasive as the slimy president of Pan-American Airways. In the final analysis, however, “Aviator” remains disjointed and superficial, an unworthy object of Scorsese’s virtuosity and passion.

In contrast, Lost Embrace is a small film from Argentina with a sharp sense of the human comedy. It tells interlocking stories about the mostly Jewish proprietors of a shabby shopping mall in Buenos Aires, as narrated by Ariel (Daniel Hendler). This young man is angry with his father, Elías (Jorge D’Elía), who deserted the family right after his son’s circumcision. A video of that event is the only image Ariel has of his father.

It’s not always easy to follow director Daniel Burman’s nervous camera as it wanders past the mall’s shops, stalls and office cubicles, but we enjoy the endless wheeling and dealing and overall good humor of the mostly Jewish neighborhood -- which also contains a large Italian family’s radio repair shop and a feng shui boutique run by a young Korean couple.

Ariel, a student dropout and part-time assistant in his mother’s lingerie store, has an unrealistic notion of becoming “European”; he wants to get documents from his grandmother that will allow him to travel with a Polish passport. His heroically patient mother Sonia (Adriana Aizemberg) tries to guide Ariel past resentment of his father, who went to Israel and lost his arm fighting there in 1973.

Life in this semi-shetl is full of wild energy: A brazen young women makes herself available to Ariel, though she is living with an older man who may not be her father; an older brother Joseph (Sergio Boris) deals in silly novelty items; the rabbi (Norman Erlich) suddenly announces he is leaving to serve a synagogue in Miami Beach; and there is a race through the streets between two young men pulling their delivery carts behind them.

Everything is full of jokes until Ariel visits his grandmother (Rosita Londner) to get the documents he wants. She discloses that she used to be a singer in a Polish nightclub and has bought a tiny piano. In the deeply moving turning point of the film, she proceeds to sing for him a melody of longing and reconciliation. You may find some twists in the ending improbable, but it’s hard not to submit to “Lost Embrace,” which is as tender as it is funny.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

‘Sister Rose’s Passion’ up for Academy Award

A short film about now 84-year-old Dominican Sr. Rose Thering and her work to fight anti-Semitism is one of five films nominated for the 2005 Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Short. “Sister Rose’s Passion” chronicles Sr. Thering’s struggle to help the Catholic church change its relationship with Jews.

According to a news release put out by the Racine Dominicans, when Sr. Thering was growing up on a dairy farm near Plain, Wis., she did not know any Jews. “I only knew them from what we read in our religious textbooks,” she’s quoted as saying. After entering the Sisters of St. Dominic, she taught for years in elementary and high schools and then pursued a doctorate at the University of St. Louis. Her dissertation research, which she finished in 1961, examined the Catholic church’s teachings about Jews and other non-Catholics in Catholic textbooks and other writings.

The dissertation research influenced the writers of the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”), which officially declared that the Jews were not responsible for killing Christ. Now retired, Sr. Thering taught in the department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey for nearly 30 years and has made more than 50 trips to Israel.

The 39-minute documentary was produced by Steve Kalafer and Peter LeDonne and was intended to counter the controversial effects of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” It was directed by Oren Jacoby and won the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival award for Best Documentary Short.

-- NCR staff

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2005

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