The Middle East, Spanish Style


By Ilan Stavans

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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‘Only Human” (“Seres Queridos”) is the first Spanish film to address the Middle Eastern conflict directly. Set in Madrid and designed as a comedy of errors, it is about the Dalinsky family, a neurotic Jewish clan made up of Gloria, a yiddishe mame; her absentee husband, Ernesto, and three adult children: brainy Leni; Tania, a nymphomaniac with a 6-year-old daughter, and David, a ba’al teshuva, or newly observant Jew.

As the movie starts, Leni is about to introduce the family to her boyfriend, Rafi, a clumsy, innocent-looking academic. Initially the family is thrilled because he is an Israeli, so they assume he is Jewish. But everything collapses when they find out he is actually Palestinian. Should a Jew and a Palestinian marry, even in Madrid? Will people be able to tolerate the liaison? Soon Rafi knocks a bucket of frozen soup out the window, apparently hitting Ernesto on the head; Gloria suspects Ernesto of having an affair; Rafi hides in the bathroom just as Dudu, the blind grandfather, is peeing, and Rafi and Tania do a belly-dance routine on a table in Ernesto’s executive office. Meanwhile, David is on a mission to reprimand his mother and sisters for not following Mosaic law.

Teresa de Pelegrí and Dominic Harari, the directors, are husband and wife. (One is Spanish, the other British.) The Jewish community of Madrid is among the tiniest in Western Europe. Mostly Ashkenazic, it retains a teneous connection to pre-1492 La Convivencia. It is also a community with an unidentifiable sense of self-parody. Pelegrí and Harari might have been more successful had they indulged in some humorous historical soul-searching. Might one be able to make parodies of Shmuel HaNagid and Yehuda Halevi? How about some slapstick around the Edict of Expulsion?

Instead, the directors cover up their rootlessness by stealing from various sources, offering a catalog of out-of-place stereotypes: Gloria is a Woody Allen type who thinks there will be peace in the Middle East before her husband gives her an orgasm; Rafi’s mishaps are modeled after the toilet jokes in “There’s Something About Mary,” and Dudu seems like an envoy from “Saturday Night Live.”

Norma Aleandro, the Argentine star of “The Official Story,” is Gloria. She is a talented actress, but in “Only Human” she appears incapable of keeping a straight Iberian accent. Her performance seems more set in El Once, the Jewish business district of Buenos Aires. The role of Rafi is played by Guillermo “Willy” Toledo, a celebrated Spanish actor, but unfortunately Toledo doesn’t appear to have a clue about Palestinian malehood. The rest of the cast is equally inconsequential.

Too bad. A majority of Iberian intellectuals are anti-Israel. They are also ignorant about Jewish domestic affairs in the Diaspora. Through laughter, the film, shot before the Madrid terrorist attacks broke out in the Atocha station, could have helped alleviate a small fraction of misconceptions.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion” (Graywolf).

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