An aging retiree desperate for enduring relevance plots to kidnap a German cafe owner he thinks is a former Nazi in Alvaro Brechner’s good-natured foray into Yiddishkeit humor, “Mr. Kaplan.” Some will accuse the pic of pandering to the older Jewish crowd, and while it’s hard to argue with that assessment, Brechner’s sophomore feature boasts enjoyable leads alongside a plot as predictable as your Great-aunt Bella’s matzoh balls: What’s fluffy for some will seem gummy to others. A Stateside release will follow a host of fest screenings, and international sales have been brisk; “Kaplan” was also Uruguay’s Oscar nominee.
Montevideo, 1997: The Kaplans, Jacob (Hector Noguera) and Rebecca (Nidia Telles), have been married for 50 years. He fled Sosnowiec, Poland (not coincidentally, the birthplace of the helmer’s grandfather), just before the Nazi invasion, making his way alone to Uruguay where he carved out a solidly middle-class, reasonably happy life. Now at 76, as he’s increasingly looked upon as just an old man, he’s beginning to ask the hard questions: “Have I inspired anyone in any way? Did I accomplish anything remarkable? How useful was I?”
Jacob’s sons Isaac (Gustavo Saffores) and Elias (Hugo Piccinini) are concerned their dad is beginning to lose his marbles, so they hire Wilson Contreras (Nestor Guzzini) as driver and watchman. Wilson, a former cop, comes off as a genial, none-too-bright deadbeat, drinking too much and not coping well with his wife ankling the family home with their kids. Jacob chafes at being “looked after,” but when his granddaughter Lottie (Nuria Flo) mentions an old German guy with a beach cafe who’s popularly nicknamed “the Nazi,” he gets an idea: Kidnap the guy and smuggle him to Israel for a show trial, just like Adolf Eichmann.
Director Brechner (“Bad Day to Go Fishing”) calls Jacob a “Quixote Schlemazel,” but Kaplan isn’t really a born loser — he had a good life, has a loving wife, and mostly did things right. But on top of wanting to make the world a better place, he’s also working off a classic case of survivor’s guilt, so the idea of capturing a real-life Nazi is too good to resist. Never mind that the cafe owner, Julius Reich (Rolf Becker), came to Uruguay later than the expected scenario (“Phony documents!” cries Jacob), or that his long-sleeved shirts might be covering the only thing he’s really hiding. With Wilson, his bumbling Sancho Panza, in tow, Kaplan sets out to capture his imagined nemesis.
As a quirky caper, “Mr. Kaplan” brings nothing new to the seder plate, certainly not the jokey Jewish grace notes. What does work nicely is the concept of Jacob as an older man unfulfilled, yearning to be pertinent to today. Also well handled is Wilson’s gradual development, revealing him to be a loyal, upright colleague wanting to win his family back at all costs. Taken on this level, the film can appeal not just to the senior discount audience, but their caregivers as well.
Chilean vet Noguera nails Jacob’s head-strong orneriness as well as the character’s unresolved core, while Guzzini (“So Much Water”) is the right match as his working-class opposite, outwardly a screw-up but a wounded romantic at heart. Technically, this is a slick package all the way, lively and ironic without calling attention to itself. An added bonus: Serge Gainsbourg’s 1975 song “S.S. in Uruguay” is used in the opening and closing credits.
Film Review: 'Mr. Kaplan'
Reviewed at Turin Film Festival (TorinoFilmLab), Nov. 24, 2014. (Also in Palm Springs Film Festival; 2014 Busan, London, Chicago, Mar del Plata, Goa film festivals.) Running time: 98 MIN.
(Uruguay-Spain-Germany) A Menemsha Films (in U.S.) release of a Baobab Films, Salado, Razor Film Produktion, Expresso Films production, in association with ZDF/Arte. (International sales: Memento Films, Paris.) Produced by Alvaro Brechner, Mariana Secco. Co-producers, Roman Paul, Gerhard Meixner.
Directed, written by Alvaro Brechner. Camera (color), Alvaro Gutierrez; editor, Nacho Ruiz Capillas; music, Mikel Salas; production designer, Gustavo Ramirez; costume designer, Alejandra Rosasco; sound, Fabian Oliver, Nacho Royo-Villanova; associate producer, Simon Offenloch.
Hector Noguera, Nestor Guzzini, Rolf Becker, Nidia Telles, Nuria Flo, Leonor Syarcas, Gustavo Saffores, Hugo Piccinini. (Spanish, Yiddish dialogue)