The centrality of Jewish filmmakers to the New Argentine Cinema is often remarked upon (frequently in these pages, we admit). The dry humor of Martin Rejtman, the behavioral charms of Daniel Burman and the deadpan frenzy of Diego Lerman are an important part of the ongoing renaissance of filmmaking in the Southern Cone. You can add another name to that list, courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Latinbeat festival, which begins on Aug. 10.
On the strength of “Chinese Take-Away,” only his third feature film, I’d say Sebastian Borensztein bears watching, to say the least. Borensztein’s father, Tato Bores, was a wildly popular Argentine comic, something of a more politicized version of Jerry Lewis and “Chinese Take-Away,” while less pointed in its commentary, retains a similar sense of the absurd. What else can you say about a film that opens with a young man’s proposal being ruined by a cow falling from the sky and clobbering his fiancée?
It would be too much to ask — and probably too much to bear — for the film to continue at that febrile pace, but Borensztein is happy to sprinkle a few more grotesquely funny interludes drawn from the clipping files of Roberto (Ricardo Darín), a misanthropic hardware store owner who collects such tales of lethal misadventure. At the film’s outset, Roberto is a dour, dyspeptic loner whose highly regimented and repetitive life consists entirely of work, meals, sleep and a regular visit to his parents’ grave. If he has a lack of the verve and style one associates with the porteño (residents of Buenos Aires), he more than makes up for it in acerbic, enraged humor. Underneath this curmudgeonly exterior is a very well-hidden, carefully camouflaged heart.
When he finds himself saddled with a bewildered Chinese immigrant Jun (Ignacio Huang), a young man who speaks no Spanish and is seeking his uncle, whose address is tattooed on his forearm, Roberto’s basic decency begins to emerge. Of course, it sometimes manifests itself in tandem with his short temper, for instance when he head-butts an obnoxious police officer, but at least we now know that his warmer impulses aren’t restricted to his dead mother and father.
Borensztein uses Darín’s artfully minimalist performance to great effect as the character’s dilemma becomes increasingly complicated. He finds himself juggling Jun’s predicament with the attentions being paid him by Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), the sister of his only friend, the rather dubious help reluctantly offered by the Chinese Embassy and his own well-intentioned but not always well-founded efforts. (The scene in which he escorts Jun around Buenos Aires’ Chinatown includes one of the film’s funniest moments.) Darín is an actor who is supremely gifted at getting the greatest emotional charge out of the smallest gesture, and his occasionally raised eyebrow here is worth more than all of Roberto’s fulminations; the result is a beautifully rounded portrait of a man with more than his share of emotional armor.
Beyond Roberto’s own personal sorrows, “Chinese Take-Away” is an astute film about the perils and benefits of living in a diasporic culture, which you don’t have to be Jewish to understand, and that Borensztein gifts with his quick, intuitive grasp. The divisions within the Chinese-Argentine world are only hinted at, but you can see them deftly sketched. The sheer strangeness of being part of an unexpected microcosm within a larger community is something one suspects Borensztein has experienced first-hand.
Finally, the artful balancing of Roberto’s grimly humorous worldview — “Life is absurd, the world is a huge ball of nonsense,” he asserts in explaining his clipping collection — against his extraordinary efforts on behalf of a complete stranger seems to me to be a typically Jewish reaction of the realities of diasporic life. Roberto isn’t Jewish, but Borensztein is, and his conclusion that the absurdity of daily life can be both tragic and comic, often simultaneously, definitely is.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present its 13th annual Latinbeat series Aug. 10-23 at the Walter Reade Theater (Lincoln Center at 65th St.). “Chinese Take-Away” will have its New York premiere on Aug. 11; it also plays on Aug. 12. For more information, call (212) 875-5600 or go to www.filmlinc.com.