By Alejandro A. Riera
Argentina is home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population, estimated at around 300,000. And while Argentinean cinema has a proud history of Jewish-themed films, it wasn’t until the mid 90s/early noughts that Argentinean-Jewish filmmakers, led by Daniel Burman (called by film studies scholar Tamara L. Falicov “the godfather of the new Argentinean-Jewish cinema”), took control of their own stories. Burman ((Lost Embrace, Family Law and The Tenth Man), alongside Ariel Winograd (Cheese Head, My First Wedding) and Gabriel Lichtmann (Jews in Space Or Why Is This Night Different From Other Nights) among others, belongs to a generation of post-dictatorship filmmakers who challenged the concept of argentinidad as a strictly Eurocentric one by showing the more ethnically diverse, working class face of Buenos Aires. Even period films like María Victoria Menis’ Camera Obscura (2008) —the story of a woman isolated by her family and community for her average looks who discovers her inner beauty after befriending a French photographer— challenged the status quo by placing the experiences of Jewish women front and center. Walter Tejblum’s amiable but flawed 2019 feature film debut Shalom Taiwan (available on DVD and currently streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Apple TV) is the latest addition to this large and worthy filmography.
Rabbi Aaron (Fabián Rosenthal) is the quintessential good man: caring, selfless, willing to lend a friendly ear no matter how busy he may be and to solve everyone’s problems even if it is at the expense of his wife and three children (including a newborn). As the head of his synagogue, he has been trying to step off the shadows of his mentor Rabbi Youssef. To leave his own mark, Aaron renovated and expanded his synagogue in order to offer more services to his community, including a soup kitchen. He owes Guzmán (Carlos Portaluppi), a local lender, more than $140,000. His congregation is financially supported by wealthy New York donors but now those donors can’t do much for the congregation: the economic crisis has hit them hard even though they live in multimillion dollar apartments with a view of the Empire State Building. One even blames Taiwanese companies for his troubles. Back in Buenos Aires, Guzmán threatens to foreclose the loan if Aaron doesn’t pay it in full in ten days. “What happened with the value of one’s word?,” the Rabbi asks rhetorically. “Well, it was devalued as the Argentine peso, rabbi,” responds Guzmán.
Following a friend’s advice, Rabbi Aaron once again packs his bags, leaves his family behind (even though he promises he will be back just in time for his daughter’s birthday, a promise narrative convention tells us he will not be able to keep) and flies off to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, where he connects with the rabbi of a local synagogue who provides him with the contacts of his three Taiwanese sponsors. Although his efforts prove fruitful at the beginning, this eternal optimist sees his dream collapse around him in this strange land as things go from bad to worse back home.
The image of an Orthodox Jew, sticking out like a sore thumb, in a sea of Taiwanese faces, in a world alien to him, should be full of comedic potential. But the culture clash is minimized by Tejblum and co-scriptwriter Sergio Dubcovsky; they instead focus on Aaron’s inner turmoil, his frustrations and desperation, his sense that he is losing control, that things are escaping out of his grasp. In a way the film, much like Aaron, won’t step outside its shell and see things in a different light. Taiwan, with its bustling streets and markets and peaceful tea fields, remains as anonymous to the filmmakers as it does to Aaron. Even the one tantalizing idea, the fact that there is a Yiddish-speaking Orthodox community in Taipei that could offer succor to Aaron, is left unexplored. How do they interact with the general population? How do they make themselves understood? And why would these three Taiwanese millionaires help their community?
And yet, there is a lot to like about this tale of self-discovery, from its empathetic portrayal of Aaron and the community he serves to its almost laid back, convivial tone. Rosenthal, in his first leading role, is superb as Aaron. He captures his character’s intrinsic goodness and doubts as well as the burden he carries, the feeling that he is way over his head. Rosenthal’s face is a gold mine of subtle expressions: he be hang doggish as he sits alone in a bench outdoors in Taipei in one scene and in the next his face will light up with a big fatherly smile as he plays with the daughters of his hotel’s Spanish-speaking clerk. And the little dance of joy he dances after receiving his first (and only) big donation is both delightful and bittersweet for we know that this is the one brief moment of happiness Aaron will be allowed to enjoy in his quest for the impossible.