In a Jewish-Hispanic Fairy Tale, A Witch With a Yiddish Accent

By Ilan Stavans

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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Quick: How many movies with Jewish-Hispanic themes can you name?

Okay, time’s up. But don’t feel bad if your list is a bit short. I know something about these matters and could only come up with about six titles, including “The Jewish Gauchos,” based on the literary classic by Alberto Gerchunoff and set in the Argentine Pampa in 1910, and the black-and-white drama “The Pawnbroker,” with Rod Steiger, about a remorseful Holocaust survivor and a Puerto Rican youngster in New York.

This, no doubt, is a sorrowful number for Latin America, a region with a Jewish population just under half a million, a bit less than that of France. But the bad news gets worse. The content of these films is — oy, oy, oy — always too serious. Immigrants and prostitutes and revolutionaries… why isn’t anybody laughing? I recently counted the total number of comic scenes in my collection and came up with a paltry two.

Enter “Samy and I,” which premieres on Tuesday, November 6, as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival. I laughed my Mexican pants off in this comedy of Argentine-Jewish angst by director Eduardo Milewicz, which became a huge success in Buenos Aires.

The plot is familiar enough: Meet Samuel Goldstein. About to turn 40, he acts and thinks like Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks combined into a Nathan’s frankfurter. He also works in television, but — what else is new? — he hates his job. Is there a Jewish neurotic who is happy with what he has? Samy’s dream is to write the great Latin American novel. You will ask: Don’t we have enough already by guys like Gabriel Garcîa Márquez and Julio Cortázar? Who needs more?

Is Samy a schlemazel? Or is he a schlemiel? His girlfriend is a Lacanian psychobabbler; his sister is depressed, and his Jewish mother is… well, una madre judía. One day, amid a stream of consciousness in which Samy recognizes that he is a good-for-nothing, he stumbles upon Mary, a gorgeous model. Mary persuades him of his unappreciated talents. You’re a neurotic but also a genius, she tells him. Just let your inner yo free in front of the television camera. Soon he becomes the star of his own program, “El Show de Samy Goldstein,” and everyone goes berserk. His manias and phobias are recognized as representative of Argentina as a whole. The nice Jewish boy becomes everyman’s hero.

Milewicz’s artistic touch is gentle and intelligent. His screenplay is smooth and engaging, but I suspect that American audiences will get only half of a half of its true value. Years ago, I was compelled to watch Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in Madrid, dubbed in Spanish. The effect was soporific. Likewise, the English subtitles in “Samy and I,” God bless them, are a killer.

Still, the effort is worth the while, mainly because the cast includes actor Ricardo Darín, a non-Jewish Italian who captures the Argentine zeitgeist to perfection, and Angie Cepeda, supremely convincing as the Colombian beauty.

At any rate, the plight of Jews in the Southern Hemisphere is finally portrayed as a whopper, which, as far as I’m concerned, is big news. No tomb desecrators here, no torturers — only a modern fairy tale with a witch in a Yiddish accent.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His books include “On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language” (Penguin) and “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” (HarperCollins).

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