Miriam Rinn
Miriam Rinn

CultureJew: Father-Son Stories from Argentina, Brooklyn, and 1951

It’s summer, so it’s not a great time for adults to go to the movies, but as we get closer to Labor Day, there is a better selection to pick from. I enjoyed an amusing new Argentinian film called “The Tenth Man,” which is set in El Once, the old Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Initially confusing but ultimately funny and touching, the movie follows Ariel, a middle-aged economist, who is traveling back to Buenos Aires to introduce his dancer fiancee to his father, Usher. From the start, nothing goes right. At first, the girlfriend can’t make the flight because she has an audition, and eventually she bows out of the trip altogether. Usher insists that his son find a pair of Velcro sneakers in New York for a hospital patient in Buenos Aires, but despite going from store to store, Ariel cannot find sneakers in the right size. He boards the plane already a failure, and when he arrives at the charitable foundation his father runs, all is chaos, and his father is not around. Periodically, Usher calls on the phone, asking Ariel to do other chores, many having to do with finding kosher meat. It’s all pretty zany, and a rationalistic Ariel is predictably annoyed.

Little by little, the outlines of the story become visible. Director and writer Daniel Burman based a lot of the script on his own experience with Usher, a real person who heads the actual foundation in El Once. The Jewish communities in Latin America are very tightly connected, and Burman captures that sense of claustrophobic intimacy. Everyone knows everyone’s business and there are personal intersections everywhere. Ariel, played by the Argentinean comic actor Alan Sabbagh, meets Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), the silent daughter of the recalcitrant butcher, and learns that she’s being sheltered by his father. Although she has become Orthodox, Eva seems willing to bend the rules. It’s clear that Usher, like Prospero, is pulling the strings to encircle Ariel in the life of the community. Because that world is presented with a great deal of warmth, his return feels fortunate rather than manipulated, and all ends well.

And Now to Brooklyn

I liked another father-son story less. Set in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn (is there any other kind?), “Little Men” focuses on the friendship that grows between two 13-year-old boys when Jake moves into the two-story house his grandfather left his cash-strapped actor father. Tony’s seamstress mother Leonor rents the street-level store, where she ekes out a modest living. Leonor warmly welcomes the new arrivals, but when Jake’s father Brian realizes she hasn’t had a rent increase in ages, the horizon darkens. The neighborhood is changing, rents are rising, and Brian needs the money.

While relations between the adults sour, the boys become fast friends. Shy, artistic Jake is drawn to the more outgoing Tony, who dreams of being an actor like Brian. Director Ira Sachs hints that Jake is falling in love with the other boy, but that’s never overt. Tony seems to have a crush on a girl in his acting class, so it’s unlikely that Jake’s feelings will be reciprocated.  The boys do become close, confiding friends, playing video games, hanging out together, and eating over each other’s houses.  That bond makes the threat of Leonor’s eviction that much more traumatic. The boys decide that they will refuse to speak to their parents until Brian changes his mind. That sets up a denouement of sorts.

Sach’s previous films include “Love Is Strange” with Alfred Molina (he’s in this one too) and “Keep the Lights On,” a movie I saw and hated at Tribeca several years ago. Like that film, “Little Men” presents a slow-moving, episodic storyline with an odd, flat acting style. Although Sachs seems to be aiming for a naturalistic approach made up of small moments, his movies feel aimless and artificial to me, with few emotional highs or lows. Greg Kinnear, an actor of genuine charm, plays Brian as an emotionally constipated, unsuccessful actor. It’s true that most actors don’t make any money, but they usually have bigger personalities.  Paulina Garcia, so good in “Gloria,” plays Leonor, a Chilean immigrant. Her attitude toward Brian is so unreasonable that she seems unhinged at times. Is she implying that she and his father were lovers? Was she his nurse? Why would she be surprised that a new landlord wants a rent increase? Why doesn’t she look for another place for her store? It doesn’t make much sense. There are appealing shots of kids enjoying the city, and a genuinely funny–although too long–scene of kids doing acting exercises. It’s getting good reviews, but not to my taste.

Another Philip Roth Film Adaptation

Indignation,” the latest adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, is also a father-son story of sorts. Marcus Messner is the freethinking clever son of a kosher butcher in Newark. The year is 1951, neighborhood boys are being drafted into the Korean War, but Marcus has a scholarship to Winesburg College in Ohio. Eager to get away from his anxiety-ridden father, Marcus shows up at Winesburg to discover an entirely different world. There are not many Jews on campus, but Marcus doesn’t care because he is an atheist. He doesn’t understand why the Jewish fraternity comes calling or why the dean is concerned about his social life. Although clever, Marcus isn’t very smart. When his hyper-rational approach to life crashes into the real thing, he doesn’t know what to do. There is also his crush on the beautiful blonde Olivia, an emotionally unstable, sexually experienced girl in his history class. Marcus shares the slut/madonna view of female sexuality of his era, and he is unprepared for a young woman who takes the initiative.

Almost all the film adaptations of Roth’s work have been disappointing, and I felt the same about “Indignation.” The period details are perfect, the acting is good, but there seems no way to capture the depth of Roth’s characterizations on film, and it’s through those characters that he makes his points. Maybe they should just stop trying.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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