A slightly scatterbrained old man has to face up to the fact that he is becoming too old for a lot of things – a fact his family is not getting tired of reminding him of. Looking for one last triumph, and believing that he needs to avenge his Jewish forebears before he meets them again in the afterlife, 76-year-old Jacobo Kaplan decides to become a Nazi hunter.
This basically is the premise of Mr. Kaplan, the melancholic comedy Uruguay submitted for consideration for the best foreign language award at the 2015 Oscars.
The film poses a question to its characters and the audience alike: how do you deal with getting old, and how do you deal with a family member getting old. The film’s theme regarding the immigration of both Jewish refugees and Nazis to South America somehow sits odd next to that actual main theme of ageing. One reason might be that the two themes have a link in the main character but are not really connected to each other in a meaningful way. If you are unable to create a symbiosis of two themes like that, then you have to decide which one is supposed to be the main theme of your film. And it often feels like writer/director Alvaro Brechner could not make up his mind, swinging back and forth between the two. The at times painfully slow pace of this film is probably caused in part by this indecision. The story plods along with a certain lack of excitement. And it ends with a supposed plot twist that surprises no-one.
Equally unsatisfying are the marriage problems and self-esteem problems of the second main character Wilson Contreras. Somehow you expect a film like this – if it brings up such themes – to be able to link them in a way that shows us that Wilson learns something about his own situation from his adventures with Jacobo. But this is not the case. The film’s ending picks up a lot of loose threads only to scratch its head not really knowing what to do with them.
These structural problems aside, Mr. Kaplan is a very enjoyable film. Often funny, despite the melancholic groundswell, the film entertains you and keeps you interested in the fate of its characters. It does that partly by not overexposing the supporting characters, which at times feels like a shame because many of them are interesting and not telling us more about them often seems like a missed opportunity.
The film is also refreshing in its choice not to use any Holocaust death camp scenes or similar scenes that have become so overused in this kind of film. Instead, the flashbacks are limited to personal and religious moments in Jacobo’s life. The lack of Holocaust images is a result of the writer’s choice to make his hero a refugee from Nazi persecution rather than a survivor of the Holocaust itself. Many a writer would have tweaked that character biography in order to include Holocaust images, and Brechner should be recommended for taking this fresh approach.
Next to the writing, it is the acting that carries this film. I especially enjoyed Nuria Flo as Jacobo’s grand-daughter Lottie and hope to see her in more films.
Rebecca, Jacobo’s caring – and suffering – wife, is played by Nidia Telles. Usually, roles like that are rather thankless, but Nidia Telles definitely makes the best of it. Gustavo Saffores and Hugo Piccinini play Jocobo’s sons Isaac and Elias. Both roles are too minor and too unchallenging for any actor to be able to shine in them, which is a shame because the great Piccinini’s talent really needs far more room to breathe than this film offers him.
The man playing Julius Reich, “The German”, is Rolf Becker, a well-known and talented German actor (although his roles are mostly limited to one particular type of “tough guy”). In this film, however, I was not happy with his acting, which I blame on the director as it feels like Becker never really knew enough about his character’s motivation.
The two lead actors are fantastic. Hector Noguera as the stubborn Jacobo Kaplan and Nestor Guzzini as the well-meaning but slightly buffoonish Wilson Contreras make an excellent pairing. Guzzini’s more than convincing performance is crucial for the film, as it is his embodiment of a modern day Sancho Panza that puts the finishing touches on Hector Noguera’s Uruguayan Don Quixote.
Had this film been made by a more experienced director it would probably have turned out more well-rounded; and a different director may have been able to give this film more entertainment value (maybe at the risk of losing some of the quieter and subtler elements).
Still, Brechner has achieved a very nice and thought-provoking film, that is worth your time despite its short-comings. A good film, easily 7 out of 10, and suitable viewing for anyone who does not mind that it is at times oddly slow-paced.
That said, there is no doubt in my mind that 23 Segundos (2014) is vastly superior in many respects and would have been a far more deserving Oscar submission from Uruguay than Mr. Kaplan.