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3 February 2013

Seres Queridos (2004)

Only Human
2004
Directed by: Dominic Harari
                   Teresa Pelegri
Starring: Guillermo Toledo, Marián Aguilera, Norma Aleandro, 
Maria Botto, Fernando Ramalo, Mario Martin, Max Berliner, Alba Molinero
I first heard of Seres Queridos (Only Human) because I read that Neeraj Pandey of A Wednesday fame had bought the rights to make this in Hindi. Having liked the director's previous offerings, it perked my curiosity enough to see what it was all about. At first reading, it seemed to be like Veer-Zara met Meet the Parents in Spanish, without (hopefully), the melodrama of the former and the obnoxious humour of the latter. (You can tell I did not like Meet the Parents.)

It was when I got the DVD that I realised that the film was called Seres Queridos, which does not mean 'only human' at all.  So question:1 was why on earth would anyone change 'loved ones' (the closest I can come in translation from the original Spanish) into 'only human'? That did not bode well for the sub-titles. I have enough experience of the vagaries of translation in our movies to not be complacent about the sub-titles of films in other languages. Since I did not understand Spanish, except for a few words here and there, one learns to take what one gets. I'm pleased to inform you, however, that it was not Veer-Zara + Meet the Parents.

Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) and Leni (Marián Aguilera) have come to town to meet Leni's family. Rafi is already nervous about the event and he is aghast that Leni has not yet told them that he is Palestinian. She pooh-poohs his anxiety because her folks are very liberal, she says, but he is not very convinced.
And if he is not exactly what they expect, they are definitely  not what he expects; her mother, Gloria (Norma Aleandro), is the stereotypical nervous Jewish mother. Her sister, Tania (Maria Botto), is a single mother who is a belly-dancer, and according to their mother, 'so desperate to get a man she sleeps with any one.' 

Leni's grandfather, Dudu (Max Berliner), an ex-soldier, is blind, but is often found waving a fully-loaded army rifle around. Her brother, David (Fernando Ramallo), is a very observant Jew; according to Tania, he is religious because he cannot get a girl. (She puts it far more pithily.) All of them, along with Leni's father Ernesto (Mario Martin ) live together in a small little flat on the 7th floor of an apartment building in Madrid. And yes, there is also a wounded duck in the bathroom.

So Rafi steps in to the flat, looking much like a lamb to the slaughter. He is greeted effusively by Gloria, and flirtatiously by Tania. Only David and Tania's daughter Paula take their time to warm up to him. Gloria is worried because Ernesto is not back from work yet. Rafi is quite flustered by all the goings on, and matters do not become any better when Leni tells her mother that her bumbling 'Israeli' professor is, in fact, Palestinian.
Gloria is taken aback; her much vaunted liberal tolerance vanishes like ice on a hot tin roof - that '...relationship will never  work. Palestinians kill Israelis and Israelis kill Palestinians,' she exclaims. And while Leni tries to calm her down, Rafi offers to help with dinner. 
Bad move, as it turns out. Rafi has to warm the frozen soup for dinner, but he manages to drop it out of the kitchen window instead.
What is he to do now? He calls Leni, who decides that she has to call the hospital, but that she will do so anonymously. After all, no one saw Rafi do it. If they get involved with the police, their already vulnerable relationship will never weather the media storm. Not to speak of the harm it will do her career.

Against his will, Rafi agrees, and they return to the flat with the soup. Only, Paula is witness to the soup flying out of the window, and Rafi is fearful of the consequences.
His behaviour gets odder by the minute, Gloria is getting increasingly anxious about her husband's non-arrival, and Leni and Tania have a few sisterly concerns to take care of; in the midst of it all, David is bothered that no one is keeping Shabbath.

Soon, Rafi begins to suspect that the man he killed was Leni's father. Gloria's tension is rubbing off on the sisters, and the increasing rancour between the two leads to Leni blurting out to her mother what Tania told her in confidence - their father might just be having an extra-marital affair. That could be, Gloria admits, once her initial emotional outburst is out of the way. Their father and she haven't had any sex since David was conceived. (David is 17.) "There'll be peace in Israel," she quips, "before your father gives me an orgasm."

When Rafi finally manages to get Leni alone, he tells her of his suspicions; once again, the two run down to check. Only, the body is missing. So is David's duck.

Then begins a frantic running about to discover where the body is, whether it is Ernesto, or if it's not, whether Ernesto is actually having an affair, and if so, to catch him in the act. The insane chaos that is the Dali household (originally Dalinsky), Rafi's inability to hide his tension that he may have inadvertently killed his girlfriend's father, the sisters' potshots at each other, all culminate in a scene where Rafi is forced to assure his emotionally overwrought mother-in-law-to-be that of course, he would sleep with her if he weren't already engaged to her daughter!
Where is Ernesto, really? And what is David's reaction when he discovers that Rafi is Arab?
Will Rafi's relationship with Leni survive her father's murder? What about Tania? Gloria? David?

This is a film that left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I thought the humour was brilliant. To take a story that involved such a volatile premise, a cross-cultural romance between a Spanish Jew and a Palestinian, and to portray it with humour even while paying no lip service to political correctness (the stereotypes are lampooned well and truly) and to leave you rooting for the two people in the eye of the storm - that takes some doing. On the other hand, even accounting for the ratcheting up of the events, to the extent that you are watching a farce, there were a few things that were either over the top (the brother's insistence on Shabbath), or gratuitous (the couple caught in flagrante delicto  in the office). The film dragged towards the end, boredom kept at bay only by the high quality of the acting involved.

It still was a very pleasant watch and Norma Aleandro was a treat as she played the Jewish mother at just the right pitch, never allowing her over-reactions to go over the top. There are quite a few genuine 'laugh-out-loud' moments in the film, and the scene where Rafi and Leni, the strain of the evening getting to them, end up standing almost nose to nose, reciting the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in three minutes of staccato dialogue was both hilarious and saddening. 
Guillermo Toledo was perfectly cast as the quiet professor who is already nervous about meeting his girlfriend's large family; so is Marián Aguilera as Leni, the slightly uptight journalist who is so busy being the 'good daughter' that she doesn't realise she is very domineering in her relationship with Rafi. 

I do think, however, that the acting honours were shared between Norma Aleandro and Maria Botto, who played Tania. She was incredible - there is a charm about her that makes her Tania far more likeable than the tightly wound Leni. Tania is a woman who is so desperate for love that she seeks it in the arms of different men; yet, by the end of the movie, it is evident that Leni, who has so much 'more' in terms of education, career, a steady boyfriend, envies her sister the enjoyment with which she lives her life. 

The movie tries too hard, I think, but it is a pleasant watch nevertheless, and the cast rise valiantly above the material; my only quibble is it could have been better.

8 comments:

  1. Hehhe/ I was actually grinning by the time you got to that bit about the frozen soup - and was thinking, "Another to add to my list!" But your final analysis - about it dragging towards the end, and going a little OTT in places - makes me think I should probably leave this for later.

    P.S. Coincidence? The next film I intend to watch is also Spanish! :-)

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  2.  Oh, I think you should add this to your list, Madhu. The film is definitely worth watching, and a darn sight better than most films. It is just that I expected more from it; the basic concept could have made for a far better film. I laughed right through the film; it is when you finish laughing that you realise that, umm, that scene could have done with more of this, or less of that, or that some of the scenes were totally unnecessary (that was the dragging part). The acting was top-class, though, and that made all the difference. If at some time you do watch this, I would be very interested in your opinion of it.

    It is made to order for a Hindi remake. Neeraj Pandey is remaking it as an India-Pakistan cross-cultural romance with Yami Gautam and Ali Zafar, tentatively titled Aman ki Asha. Let's see what he does with this material.

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  3.  Okay, Anu. I shall add it to my list. But - same old question - WDIGTT??! :-D

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  4. WOW, must be tough maintaining these standards of always selecting  afilm with a difference and, then penning each review without falling into a paatern! 

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  5.  In our perfect world, Madhu, time will expand to fit all that we want to do (as opposed to what we need to do). Until then, we muddle along, sacrificing sleep to watching films. :)

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  6. This one is quite interesting but like Madhu said where is the time to watch? or at least i think that is what her abbreviation WDIGTT meant. Thanks to bloggers like if not the film we are able to keep at least through the reviews.

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  7.  Shilpi, yes, WDIGTT is Madhu's shortform for 'Where do I get the time?'  If there was a perfect world, time would expand to fit in everything we want to do. Instead, work expands to fill the time we have. There is something out-of-whack about that. :)

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