Thomas Wolfe may have believed that you can’t go home again, but Argentine writer-director Daniel Burman begs to differ in his latest, “The Tenth Man,” which pivots on a middle-aged guy returning to his roots and ultimately finding himself. A valentine to the bustling Once district, the old Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and to Usher, the macher behind a Jewish welfare foundation located there, this low-key romantic comedy marks a return to one of Burman’s oft-repeated themes — a son coming to grips with his relationship with his father — and to the setting of one of his most successful features, “Lost Embrace.” Although the pic has a warm and fuzzy vibe, its low-budget, documentary-like look, slight storyline and general lack of drama may limit offshore distribution to fests and Jewish-interest events.
The story is structured around the seven days that the genial and slightly pudgy Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) spends in Buenos Aires during the colorful Purim holiday, trying to connect with his father (voiced by the real-life, mono-monikered Usher), the backbone of the close-knit Jewish community. One of the film’s several running jokes is that, while managing the affairs of his foundation in a god-like way, Usher is often heard yet never seen. Another is the constant supply of used cell phones with prepaid minutes remaining that come Ariel’s way, with Usher always knowing what number to call.
Ariel grew up in the Once, but currently works in New York as an economist. He still carries sad childhood memories of his father failing to attend his school events, because he was constantly called away to make up a quorum at funerals and the synagogue. “Why does a quorum in Judaism require 10 men?” Ariel continually wonders, a question that gives the film its English-language title.
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As Usher orders Ariel to run various errands, it may seem, at first, that the father doesn’t have his priorities straight. But it soon becomes apparent that he has a hidden agenda or two concerning his son’s welfare and happiness. And one of their chief components involves Eva (Julieta Zylberberg, “Wild Tales”), an unmarried, outwardly prim Orthodox woman that works at the foundation.
Burman pays tribute to the work of Usher’s foundation, shooting on location with actual workers and clients. Given that fiction and documentary are so closely bound up in the film, audiences may wonder if some of the humorously inspired solutions to problems that the foundation provides are real or imagined — as when a hungry person is dispatched to a bar mitzvah celebration along with a wrapped gift from the foundation’s supply.
As Ariel begins to spend time with Eva — clearing out the apartment of a recently deceased person, checking the bathroom cabinet for a medication that another foundation client requires — he is initially intrigued by her efficiency, unflappable calm and her apparent muteness. Because of Usher’s interventions, he continues to see her over the course of the week, sampling her cooking and even spying on her as she cleanses herself at the mikva. When Ariel’s girlfriend back in New York essentially dumps him over the phone, thanks to Usher, he has no reason to feel depressed or even to want to return to the U.S.
Ariel’s peregrinations on behalf of Usher and the foundation might easily have become tiresome, but Burman keeps them entertaining and slightly absurd, such as Ariel’s hospital visits with the gentle giant Marcelito (Uriel Rubin), who is obsessed with the sports paper and has an aversion to bathing. Ariel’s quick-witted solutions to Marcelito’s problems prove that he is definitely a macher in the making. This is the sort of quiet, well-observed comedy that is characteristic of Burman’s oeuvre, and it’s in ample supply here.
Low-light, hand-held lensing by Daniel Ortega provides an almost monochrome look and adds to the docu feel, as do the dozens of locals who comprise the extras.