By Jim Slotek
A story of Holocaust memories repressed by an otherwise irrepressible Argentinian Jew, Pablo Solarz’ The Last Suit has its narrative flaws and leaps of faith. But the sheer force of its central character’s untethered voyage of discovery – and the acting behind it - overcomes all.
The movie, winner of ‘The Chosen Film’ People’s Choice Award at the recent Toronto Jewish Film Festival, introduces us to Abraham Bursztein, an 88-year-old retired tailor in Buenos Aires (winningly played by Argentinian actor Miguel Ángel Solá). Widowed, with a squabbling family, Abraham has a wry, twinkle-eyed relationship with all of them – exemplified by how he fiercely-but-lovingly dickers a price with his beloved grandchild, to have her pose with him for a family picture.
But Abraham is at an all-too-familiar crossroads, literally hobbled by a diabetes-stricken leg that is destined to be amputated (a limb that he nicknames “Tzures” – Yiddish for troubles), his house is being sold out from under him by his kids and he is to be sent to a nursing home.
Then his housekeeper, while disposing of surplus possession, discovers a suit that triggers a long-lost memory of an obligation back in his native Poland. It’s surely a troubling memory, since Abraham can’t even bring himself to say the name of the country out loud.
But with that, he is gone, under cover of night, suit-in-hand, on a flight to Madrid, and from there, the hastily-conceived plan goes, a train to Warsaw. But like so many road movies, The Last Suit is about the voyage, not the destination. There will be setbacks, including a robbery and what turns out to be the impossibility of getting to Poland via Spain without going through Germany (yet another accursed place whose name Abraham can barely speak out loud).
But there is also the kindness of strangers – so many, at every step of the way, it strains credulity (the movie was inspired by Solarz’ grandfather’s own wartime Polish childhood, but the details are fictionalized).
There is a young pianist named Leo (Martín Piroyansky ) he meets on the plane, en route to (illegally) visiting his girlfriend and children in Spain. Abraham, who sweet-talks his way past EU Immigration with his one-way ticket and vague travel plans, also manages to con Leo back into the country, through means that are not precisely explained. Regardless, the indebted Leo becomes Abraham’s chauffeur while in-country.
There’s Maria (Ángela Molina), a hotelier and nightclub chanteuse who takes Abraham in when he becomes penniless. There’s his long lost daughter Claudia (Natalia Verbeke), who overcomes still-simmering (and unexplained) resentment toward the old man to help fund his journey.
Switching trains in France, he meets a young woman named Ingrid (Julia Beerhold), who is, of all things, a German-born major in Jewish studies, and therefore can speak to the old man in both Yiddish and Spanish and become his new traveling companion.
And when his declining health seems finally about to derail Abraham’s journey, there’s a Polish nurse named Gosia (Olga Boladz) who, happens to speak Spanish, and consents with very little hesitation to be his final angel.
That the nature of the suit-promise remains a blank until the very end is not necessarily a flaw. But Solarz does, as mentioned, skim over any part of Abraham’s journey that seems insurmountable. And the idea that so many people would instantly fall in love with him (particularly Maria, whose relationship is at times flirtatious) would be hard to swallow with an actor even the least bit less charismatic than Sola.
As drama, The Last Suit is unabashedly manipulatively sentimental. Bring your hankies for the last act. But it does move nicely from the whimsy that marks its first act to the dire memories that befall the last (for obvious reasons, the time Abraham spends on a train triggers the worst hallucinations).
The Last Suit is definitely worth the watch, even if only for the always entertaining sight of an actor carrying an entire movie on his shoulders.
The Last Suit. Directed by Pablo Solarz. Starring Miguel Angel Sola, Angela Molina and Martín Piroyansky. Opens Friday, August 17 at Cineplex Empress Walk Cinemas.