A Polish-born Holocaust survivor decides to travel from Buenos Aires to Lodz to fulfill a promise he made nearly 70 years earlier in Argentine writer-director Pablo Solarz’s touching, albeit occasionally heavy-handed, drama “The Last Suit.” Thankfully, this late-life road movie also boasts plenty of poignant and humorous moments that will play well with older viewers and those seeking Jewish-interest content. After reaping numerous audience awards on the festival circuit, the film begins a U.S. theatrical run in New York on Sept. 21, before expanding to Los Angeles on Sept. 28 and later the hinterlands via small but enterprising distribution outfit Outsider Pictures.
Despite a bum right leg that he nicknames “tzuris” because of the aggravation it gives him, stubborn, 88-year-old retired tailor Abraham Bursztein (Miguel Ángel Solá, credibly playing a character two decades his senior) still has plenty of fight and flair left in him. Unfortunately, his family refuses to recognize it. Bursztein, like some latter-day King Lear, has already foolishly divided his property among his daughters, and the two older ones decide to dispatch him to a nursing home. After all, they say, he will soon need more care because the day is coming when his leg will require amputation.
But Bursztein isn’t ready to give up his independence just yet. He has a mission to accomplish back in the old country, a place which for years he has refused to name. When ordering his travel tickets, he still won’t let the word pass his lips and instead writes “Polonia” on a slip of paper. Armed with a suit bag, a small traveling case, and a wad of cash, he sets out on an itinerary that would be punishing even for a young and healthy person: Buenos Aires to Madrid by air, then Madrid to Paris by train, a switch of stations, and then on to destinations east.
Solarz’s script relies on the characters that Bursztein encounters en route to coax from him explanations about his trip and background. These encounters also spark flashbacks to memories of Bursztein’s family in 1940s Lodz. As the flashbacks start to occur with greater frequency, they finally contextualize the striking pre-credit sequence of a Jewish gathering where the people are enthusiastically dancing to klezmer music.
At first, while he is still relatively fresh, Bursztein is wily and gallant. He cleverly manages to chase away his airline seatmate (Martín Piroyansky) so that he can stretch out, and he shows snappish Madrid hotelier María (a still-sexy Ángela Molina, 40 years on from “That Obscure Object of Desire”) enough old-school charm that she’s willing to help him after he’s been robbed of his travel stash.
But the long hours Bursztein spends on the train are tough and not especially comfortable and the tenacious old gent becomes weaker and increasingly cranky. At Paris’ Gare de l’Est station, he is faced with a quandary: How can he get to Poland without setting foot in Germany? As he tells Ingrid (Julia Beerhold), a multi-lingual German anthropologist who is trying to help him, the thought of a Jewish person traveling by rail through her country has, for him, extremely unpleasant connotations. After the extremely kind and patient Ingrid explains that Germans of her generation have accepted responsibility for their past, he shares with her the tales of his most devastating experiences.
When he finally arrives in Poland, Bursztein has been reduced to a weak and dependent state, not unlike his condition when he returned to his family home after the concentration camps and was restored to health by his neighbor Piotrek (Jan Mayzel as an adult). This time, his guardian angel is nurse Gosia (Olga Boladz), and it is she who helps him to finally fulfill his pledge.
Although the film is generally likable, Solarz overeggs the pudding in some places. Not content to merely allude to “King Lear,” he makes Bursztein declare that he expelled his youngest daughter, Claudia (Natalia Verbeke), when she wouldn’t compete with her sisters in telling him how much she loved him. That clumsy obviousness draws us out of the drama when we already understood that he had behaved like a foolish old man. Likewise, many aspects of his journey stretch credibility a tad too thin. Nevertheless, the end result reinforces belief in the continued existence of a few good souls among humankind.
The solid production package offers a look of stylized naturalism that makes it stand out from the many over-lit telepics on this subject. Antonio Frutos’ cutting smoothly incorporates the flashbacks, and Federico Jusid’s judiciously used klezmer-inflected score is a big plus.