A wryly amusing peek into Buenos Aires' bustling Jewish quarter, THE T ENTH MAN (EL RAY DEL ONCE) sees writer-director Daniel Burman content to explore familiar turf in more ways than one. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in the Argentinian capital's heavily-populated 11th district ("el Once"), he harks explicitly back to the loose 2000-2006 trilogy — set in the area — which made his name.
Startling to remember that back in 2004 Burman, then just 30, won the runner-up Grand Prix award in the Berlinale's main competition — ahead of such rivals as MONSTER, BEFORE SUNSET, MARIA FULL OF GRACE and Theo Angelopoulos' THE WEEPING MEADOW. BROKEN EMBRACES also took the festival's Best Actor trophy for Daniel Hendler, who played Ariel Makaroff — he'd been Ariel Goldstein in Burman's WAITING FOR THE MESSIAH (2000) and then became Ariel Perelman in FAMILY LAW (2006). THE TENTH MAN's protagonist is yet another Ariel, but as incarnated by the chubby, balding Alan Sabbagh he's much more of a nebbish than any of the wolfishly-handsome Hendler versions.
Based in New York with his dancer girlfriend Monica (Elisa Carricajo, heard but not seen), Ariel returns home to see his father Usher, who runs a charitable foundation supplying meat, pharmaceuticals and menswear — among other items — to the neighborhood. Usher is so busy with his various business negotiations that he is, like Monica, only a voice on the phone, sending the eager-to-please but somewhat klutzy Ariel on various errands across the city. These bring him into contact with a gangling, "Napoleon Dynamite-haired hospital patient, Marcelito Cohen (oddball scene-stealer Uriel Rubin) and also Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a demure, electively (near-)mute foundation beneficiary/worker whom he develops a halting romantic attraction.
Eva's devoutness semi-inadvertently sees the longtime skeptic Ariel reconnect with his faith, most drolly during a lively visit to the local synagogue where he's greeted with boisterous delight and finds himself being strapped into Tefillin phylacteries. Ariel endures such shenanigans with the plodding, stoic resignation that's his main character-trait — he's never what one could call the most dynamic of big-screen heroes, but spending an hour and a quarter in his company proves a gently rewarding experience. Of course he's our point of access to the Once itself, an environment captured in loving detail by Daniel Ortega's hand-held camerawork — frequently spying on characters from handy corners of their cramped, cluttered, lived-in interior spaces. Margarita Tambornino's production design draws heavily from the reality of the district, where 'Usher' (Senor Barilka was using this particular mononym before the R&B star was born) actually does operate the charitable organization as depicted here.
The smartest touch of Burman's bouncy, unobtrusively informative screenplay is to make Usher such a dominant offscreen presence before he finally shows up in the closing minutes. Indeed, for the bulk of the running time we're led to believe Usher is the "tenth man" of the English language title — which refers to the quorum of men required for a Jewish funeral — before a last-reel development concludes the bittersweet proceedings on a productively circular note.