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Meeting the Jewish Parents, Spanish-Style

By Michael Fox

To be perfectly frank, I can't make a good case for why I liked the Spanish-Jewish family comedy Only Human so much more than the American-Jewish family comedy Keeping Up with the Steins .

Perhaps stereotypes are less grating in a foreign language. Or maybe the characters are familiar without being painfully familiar, if you know what I mean.

Or, more likely, Dominc Harari and Teresa de Pelegri's debut feature benefits from a more appealing cast and a wittier screenplay. Can you imagine anything funnier than a container of frozen soup intended for Shabbat dinner skidding out a seventh-story window and beaning a passerby?

OK, lots of things. But that absurdist incident morphs into a resonant plot device that somehow manages to be hilarious and poignant, surreal and transformational.

The movie begins on a terrific note, with an enchanting couple clearly in love (and lust) expressing their nervousness (and desire) as they ride in an elevator. Leni (pale-skinned redhead Marian Aguilera) has brought Rafi (the bearded Guillerrmo Toledo) home to meet her Madrid family, and they're both taking a big risk.

Leni's Jewish brood is a breeding ground for tsuris (angst). Older sister Tania (Maria Botto) is a nymphomaniac belly dancer with a spoiled and petulant six-year-old daughter. Her younger brother David (Fernando Ramallo) is newly frum (observant), and his demands on this Erev Shabbat (eve of the Sabbath) are making everyone testy. And her beloved elderly grandfather Dudu (Max Berliner) is not only blind but a little dotty.

That leaves her mother, Gloria (Norma Aleandro), a deeply unhappy woman with no sex life, no control over her underachieving children and no prospects for improvement. Where's Señor Dalinsky? Who knows? He could be working late yet again or, God forbid, having an affair.

Rafi should have no problem making a great impression on this crowd. Except he's not exactly how Leni had represented him when she called her mother to set the date. He's not Israeli, you see. He's Palestinian.

Now Rafi's lived in Spain since he was seven, so he's just as assimilated (both culturally and in appearance) as Leni. And I'm not sure that it's any more of a scandal than if he were a generic non-Jewish Spaniard.

But it does allow for some entertaining dialogue that skewers stereotypes and, in a pithy lovers' quarrel, condenses every argument and justification ever compiled by Israelis and Palestinians into a two-minute drill. (If only Steven Spielberg's Munich had been as economical in its political exchanges.)

The filmmakers met in Columbia's graduate film program more than a decade ago, and became collaborators and husband and wife. Harari was born in England of Egyptian Jewish ancestry, while de Pelegri is Spanish Catholic. She subsequently converted to Judaism.

Harari and de Pelegri originally set the film in London, but their Spanish producers lobbied for a change of venue. All to the good, I say, since the film has an ebullience that one does not associate with England.

Only Human has a warm spot in its heart, and sooner or later every family member is "rehabilitated" and welcomed back into the fold. The film doesn't offer a message or life lesson that we haven't gleaned from a thousand other movies, but we don't expect one.

It does remind us, with brio and a certain amount of self-deprecation, that first (and even second) impressions can be deceiving.

I can't claim that Only Human is an especially memorable movie, but its vivacious cast effortlessly sweeps us up in its ditzy maelstrom. By the time the film consciously steals the last line of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot for its own closer, we've come to appreciate the Dalinsky clan more than ever seemed possible when they opened the door for Leni and Rafi.

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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