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Alvaro Brechner: ‘Mr. Kaplan,’ Dignity, ‘Scarecrow,’ a Phrase His Grandfather Once Used

Uruguayan, but Madrid-based, Alvaro Brechner, whose “Mr. Kaplan,” Uruguay’s Oscar entry, played at the 2014 Mar del Plata Festival and then segued to December’s Ventana Sur, is a young master of understated humor – as many of his compatriots – and man’s battle for that most basic – and Quixotic – of democratic rights, the right to dignity. In “Mr. Kaplan,” that entails a 76-year-old embarking, with his sidekick Sancho Panza-ish driver Contreras, on a Nazi hunt. The candidate for outing: An aged but still fit German who owns a bar on the beach. As Mar del Plata kicked into gear, Variety caught him Brechner in a reflective mood.

UPDATE: Since last November, sold by Memento Films Intl, “Mr. Kaplan” has sold to a slew of territories, scored an upbeat Variety review and was one of five nominees for a best picture Platino Award. The film, and Brechner’s opinions, will have changed less.

There’s a Bernardo Bertolucci film, “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man.” “Mr. Kaplan” seems to me a deadpan comedy of a ridiculous man…

Deep down all men are somewhat ridiculous, because of the need to give a certain sense to our existence, to feel that we’re special, and confirm that we are special, But destiny and the universe soon put us in our place. And that mixture of man up against the universe and the ridiculousness of our existence is one of the things that have always interested me. So it’s the story of a man who asks himself: “What have I done that’s special? How am I going to be remembered?” In fact, the fact that his name is Jacobo makes him think that that’s a special sign, that he’s destined for greatness. But one day he gets up, at the age of 76, and looks back on all those years and realizes that they don’t add up to him having done or been anything special.

One of the moving things about “Mr. Kaplan” is that it charts the rebellion of a man, at an advanced age in life, against what his family has condemned him to, as well as to the onset of biology: Extinction…

Exactly. He’s a man who sees that at his age, he’s being driven into retirement, retirement from life. His family now want to make sure he doesn’t drive, that he doesn’t eat any food with any salt content, they talk very loud to make sure granddad hears them; in short very much what we often see these days: granddad is there but he must not get in anybody’s way. So, in the face of such a situation Jacob decides to act, to exact some kind of vengeance against the inexorable march of life, vengeance against oblivion. So he starts wondering how he can do something for which he will be remembered.

Filmmakers are always thinking about how many films we are going to make, how we are going to be remembered. It really is absurd. I remember when I visited my grandfather’s town, in Poland, I was surprised because I started asking things like what were the names of my ancestors, what work did they do, who were their friends, their loves, tastes, passions, ambitions, etc., and the truth is I know nothing at all about them. And that’s just one generation before my grandfather’s. What I’m getting at is how quickly life goes by and how soon we’ll be forgotten.

What Jacobo is doing is something really quite central to much literary or film creation: Giving sense to things through the creation of a narrative, through an adventure. Jacobo is going to create a narrative for which he is going to be remembered; meanwhile Alvaro Brechner is creating narratives for which he hopes to be remembered. To what extent would you see Jacobo as an alter-ego.?

Society today is constantly trying to impose upon us the roles we should play, and we’re so influenced by that that we assume the roles others impose upon us. And as far as I am concerned, imagination and fantasy are an integral part of our reality. Some people say Don Quixote was mad, or that he went mad because he read too many books of chivalry. But I don’t. And that has to do with what you were saying about being a film director: that inalienable right to imagine what he wants to be, and to live the adventure he wants to live, even if it’s simply within the realms of those fantasies. I always end up dealing with the same thing: this idea of what man believes and what man wishes to believe. Fantasy and imagination are part of our reality. They’re not foreign to it at all.

You mentioned your first film. I think the idea of a man – or woman’s – right to dignity runs through your work. In both films, the role of the partner of the main character is important. In “Mr. Kaplan,” Kaplan and his douchebag chauffeur both rebel against the lack of respect, self-respect even, of their loved ones, and in your first film it was the same thing. The rebellion of a man against his destiny, of someone already pigeonholed as a failure…

The film is, above all, the struggle by two men who want to be respected, for their dignity to be acknowledged. The backdrop of both is interesting: often we think that respect is attained when one is respected by others, when in fact respect is only attained when one respects oneself. So it’s that struggle of both of them. As is the case in “Bad Day To Go Fishing, it’s the type of buddy movie that I adore, it’s a kind of blueprint for me, films like “Scarecrow,” the idea of two people who are going to strike up an alliance, with a common objective. And the idea is not so much the attainment of that objective; it’s the adventure it entails, on the way to it, living that together, and how the two of them, with mutual belief in each other, feel respect and feel respected.

There is definitely much of the Quijote/Sancho Panza relationship in “Mr. Kaplan,” as well as mainstream U.S. entertainment – the buddy movie – Alexander Payne as well… Wouldn’t you say so? It’s a kind of Uruguayan indie movie?

One obviously has lots of influences…and it’s always difficult to say exactly which have driven one to make one type of work in particular…Of course what you say about Alexander Payne is accurate, “Mr. Kaplan” has something to do with a kind of Italian cinema of the ‘60s, that mixture of drama and comedy; there’s also something there of the buddy movie. One of my favorite scenes of all time is the beginning of “Scarecrow”: Two people who decide to become allied, to form a community between the two of them, simply because they’ve got nobody else, and one gives the other a light. Those pacts that define relationships and condition virtually our every act are what really matter. That’s what this buddy movie concept is all about. It’s not about these hackneyed notions of friendship; they’re not necessarily friends, they have nothing in common, except mutual respect, mutual acceptance. There’s a phrase I once heard from my grandfather: Ship brothers, this idea of people who had established brotherly links; the idea of people responding for each other all of their lives, from the simple fact that they had come over together on that boat, after leaving all their family in Europe, and probably never seeing them again, because of that boat-brotherly link. And for me that’s what Jacobo and Contreras are here.

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