"The Tenth Man" is a low-key charmer, an unlooked-for combination of Jane Austen and Isaac Bashevis Singer. With a twist of Buenos Aires thrown into the mix.
Set in that city's El Once Jewish neighborhood (its original Spanish title translates as "The King of El Once"), "The Tenth Man" is the latest film from Argentine director Daniel Burman, and one of his best.
Burman, whose excellent 2004 "Lost Embrace" won two Silver Bears at Berlin, has set this evocative opposites-attract Spanish language romance in a quite specific setting in the same way as Austen, who famously wrote about "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work."
And, like Singer, Burman has a gift for small-scale fables with Jewish themes that are rich in character and observation. His films often involve individuals trying to come to terms with the specifics of their Jewish cultural heritage, and "The Tenth Man" is no exception.
The movie's protagonist, introduced in a Manhattan prologue, is a New York-based economist named Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) who is happy to keep his Buenos Aires roots in the past. Ariel is planning a trip home, but only for a week to introduce his father to his ballerina girlfriend.
Even at the start, things do not go as planned for the bearded, flustered Ariel. His girlfriend has to delay her trip for a few days for a ballet audition, and his father, Usher, calls him as he is packing with a very specific request for a Size 47 Velcro sneaker for a young man in the hospital.
Usher (everyone calls him that, even his son) runs a neighborhood charitable foundation that specializes in helping El Once's poor Jews to get whatever they need, be it shoes, meat for their table or discarded cellphones with some minutes left.
Played by the real-life Usher, this man is so busy dealing with a crisis in the supply of meat that he's almost exclusively a disembodied voice on the telephone.
As soon as Ariel arrives, he calls and asks him to go to the apartment of a recently deceased man to check for leftover prescription medicine that could be of use to someone else in the community.
In this, Ariel is accompanied by Eva, one of the newest workers at the foundation (deftly played by Julieta Zylberberg, who was the angry waitress in the Argentine hit "Wild Tales.")
Eva turns out to be Orthodox, so Ariel cannot even shake hands with her, and she does not speak, so conversation with her is inevitably one-sided.
Yet despite these obstacles, Ariel is intrigued by Eva, by her air of tranquility, her calm in the midst of the foundation's perpetual chaos, even the way she makes him a cup of tea. All in contrast to his relationship with his girlfriend, "where we talk and talk and don't really say anything."
One thing Ariel does not connect with is Eva's religious observance.
He finds Orthodox life stifling, and after a painful event from his childhood, he has abandoned religion completely.
Playing a major role in "The Tenth Man" is the vibrant El Once community itself. Shot on the streets of the area, with local characters like the energetic owner of the Mad About Fabrics emporium, the film's vivid sense of place contributes to its appeal.
Set in the week leading up to the festive Jewish holiday of Purim, "The Tenth Man" (the title refers to the number needed in the Jewish tradition for public prayer) is broken up into day-by-day segments. It's not hard to see where all this is going, but things unfold in such a lovely way, with some unexpected twists and such a fine sense of time and place, that it's difficult not to be delighted.
In Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes