Issue Date: February 18, 2005
Overhyped 'Aviator' palls; 'Lost Embrace' charms with its tale of Jewish life in Argentina
By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
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 doesnt deserve it.
Not that Martin Scorsese hasnt earned a lifetime achievement award as a director or that there isnt 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 Logans screenplay is only a string of famous incidents that provide little sense of character development, or Im 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 hes 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, Hells Angels and The Outlaw, are only sensationalistic junk. The heros 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, its all made the fault of Hughes mother, although teaching her small son to spell quarantine as she sponges him in a tub doesnt 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 Scorseses 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 DElía), who deserted the family right after his sons circumcision. A video of that event is the only image Ariel has of his father.
Its not always easy to follow director Daniel Burmans nervous camera as it wanders past the malls 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 familys radio repair shop and a feng shui boutique run by a young Korean couple.
Ariel, a student dropout and part-time assistant in his mothers 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 its hard not to submit to Lost Embrace, which is as tender as it is funny.
Joseph Cunneen is NCRs regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is SCUNN24219@aol.com.
National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2005
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