Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2016 5:39 am 
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Argentinian Jewish filmmaker Daniel Burman deftly skirts the borders between documentary and fiction in The Tenth Man. This rambling, but short, ethnic rom-com charms and fascinates, if without ever quite truly moving us. The Spanish title, El rey del Once ("The King of the Eleven") alludes to its Botero-proportioned protagonist Ariel (Alan Sabbagh), who wears a paper crown in the last frame, and the teeming El Once Jewish district of Buenos Aires he returns to, the setting earlier for the director's "Ariel" trilogy that made his name 2000-2006. Following Ari, Burman revisits his own Jewishness enthusiastically here, even adding a plug for Israel on the protag's T shirt ("ISREAL - IS REAL") and never letting yarmulkes out of sight or reach for long. Using Jewish actors in both main and secondary roles, the film is replete with Jewish rituals, Ari putting on tefillin and dunking ten times in a ritual bath, an adult gay man seeking belatedly to celebrate his bar mitzvah, lighting candles on Shabbat; it progresses day by day through a week ending with the festival of Purim.

The fiction is that the previously secular Ari, who's been doing something financial in New York, returns after a considerable absence to El Once to see his dad, a goal withheld till the film's last few moments. Comically, relentlessly, Ari becomes a dogsbody to his father, Usher, via cell phone even before he gets to JFK Airport for the trip home. But Ari's father is the sort of person who can get away with giving absurd orders - like a last minute command to bring a pair of size 46 sneakers with Velcro closure - because it's always for somebody else; if he's ever mean, distant, or condescending it's in the interests of altruism. The sneakers are for a tall young man (Uriel Rubin) who's in the hospital for brain surgery and has motor function problems.

The real, documentary, part is that Usher - pronounced "Oosher," the name's sound itself a running joke, at least to Anglo ears - Usher Barilka, seen only for a moment in the film, his voice heard repeatedly on the phone, is very much a real person. Ari's fictional father is the actual mastermind of a bafflingly complex charitable organization in El Once that helps the needy and recycles every secondhand or abandoned thing or possession of deceased persons imaginable, including expired medications. The film will immerse us, and Ari, in this world, while Usher pushes Ari around in it like a chess piece via calls on a series of recycled found prepaid phones with time left on them.

Our awe at the skill with which Burman negotiates the world of Usher's charitable foundation and El Once's street life and religious rituals rather overwhelms, I fear, our sense of the film's intended twin emotional burdens of romance and reconciliation. But despite his considerable floppy girth, Alan Sabbagh is an experienced actor and energetic man who makes his meandering and patient character - a man vainly seeking reunion with his father, a previous Burman theme, and this at least the fourth of his variously autobiographical "Ariel" prrotagonists - consistently sympathetic. Meantime the nimble manner in which the camera follows this Ariel around through crowded, teeming scenes indoors and out is something of a tour-de-force on the part of dp Daniel Ortega.

In the same spirit as Usher's charitable venture, Burman recycles people in the neighborhood of Jewish Buenos Aires and reworks real collective events and street scenes to compose his film's messy precision, which includes recurring themes like Ari's question, why Jewish tradition of a "minyan," a quorum for a religious ceremony, demands a tenth man? That issue takes on a poignancy early on in a flashback showing how Usher left little boy Ari to experience key childhood events on his own because he believed playing "tenth man" for a minyan outranked playing good Papa.

This triumph of communal over familial aside, the film proposes that its hero, who's gone astray, can be reinserted into his family, his society, and his religious background. While Usher is constantly on to Ari over the succession of secondhand prepaid phones with money left n them, dodging face-to-face contact, giving him tasks, he is maneuvering him toward a beautiful but initially near-mute woman called Eva (Julieta Zylberberg of Wild Tales). Connecting with her, the ultimate goal of this Rube Goldberg of a plot, is the best task for Ari of all.

But despite the warmth the mild romance of Ari and Eva brings and the ingenuity throughout in the use of the real milieu, the triviality of the local details The Tenth Man is chock-full of risks making it feel inconsequential anywhere outside the realm of film festivals, particularly Jewish ones. Burman has obviously sought a midlife-crisis return to roots here, perhaps hoping to recapture the magic of his "Ariel" trilogy. As Neil Young noted in his Berlinale review of Tenth Man for Hollywood Reporter, in the intervening decade since "Ariel," "his international profile has steadily declined" even though his All In did play Tribeca in 2012, "with edgier examples of his nation's cinema now much more in vogue." So far, they're likely to remain so.

I previously reviewed Burman's Family Law (2006) and All In (2012).

The Tenth Man/El rey del Once, 82 mins., debuted at the Berlinale and showed at a few other festivals including Seattle, Jeonju (South Korea), the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Tribeca, where it got a Best Narrative Feature nomination and won Sabbagh the Best Actor award. It releases in the US (by Kino Lorber) starting 5 August 2016 in NYC at Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. TRAILER (no subtitles).

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