'Mr. Kaplan': London Review

Mr. Kaplan Still - H 2014
Courtesy of London Film Festival

Mr. Kaplan Still - H 2014

It’s not hard to guess where this black comedy is going, but it takes a fun route 

Uruguay’s submission for this year's foreign-language Oscar stars Hector Noguera as an old Jewish man who's convinced a local cafe owner is a Nazi

The story of an elderly Jewish man (Hector Noguera) who suspects an old German immigrant (Rolf Becker) of being a former Nazi, Mr. Kaplan probably represents Uruguay’s best shot ever at making the final-five shortlist for the best foreign-language film Oscar. Writer-director Alvaro Brechner’s wry serio-comedy (his Bad Day to Go Fishing was Uruguay’s 2009 submission) will still have long odds, but this highly amusing crowd-pleaser has already chalked up a number of festival outings. Eminently likable, it has tangible commercial potential as a niche release abroad even without shortlist support.

A survivor who escaped Poland in the 1930s as a kid without his parents before the Nazis wiped out his entire family, Montevideo resident Jacob Kaplan (Noguera) is 76 years old in the film’s 1997 time frame. He’s been married for 50 years to Rebecca (Nidia Telles), has two sons — uptight businessman Isaac (Gustavo Saffores) and laid-back writer Elias (Hugo Piccinini) — and a sweet teenage granddaughter, Lottie (Nuria Flo). However, the retired Jacob still feels like he’s barely achieved anything with his life compared to, say Goethe or Winston Churchill.

When he loses his driver's license due to his failing eyeight and a display of atrocious parking, Jacob is even more at a loss about what to do with his time. Two pieces of information get him thinking: First, he hears Lottie talking about a German man (Becker) in his 80s that the kids call “the Nazi,” who runs a beachfront cafe, and then he catches a news report about someone finding an 85-year-old war criminal in Argentina whom the authorities are extraditing to Israel to face trial.

Jacob puts two and two together and gets 37. He decides, based on the slimmest of evidence (the man serves frozen fish in his restaurant, for example, and always wears his long sleeves down), that the cafe owner must be a former Nazi. Assisted by Wilson Contreras (an adorably bulldoggish Nestor Guzzini), an alcoholic former police officer whom the Kaplan family has hired to chauffeur their paterfamilias around town, Jacob begins an amateur investigation into the past that turns up surprising results.

Although Jacob’s family members are sketched with light, expressive strokes (and it’s reassuring to see Uruguayan Jewish mothers are much the same as others around the world), the film’s core relationship is the odd couple of Jacob and Wilson. The first is a curmudgeonly turtle of a man, perhaps just on the verge of dementia, streaked with meanness; the other’s a big softie, one of life’s victims, who’s lost his wife and family after taking the fall for his cop brother-in-law’s corruption.

It’s not hard given the immutable laws of screenwriting to predict that by the end Jacob will discover some humility and Wilson will grow a backbone, but the routes taken to get to these places are pleasingly scenic and circuitous. Somewhat less satisfying is how very easy it is to guess who the cafe owner really is, although the reveal when it comes has just enough of a half-twist to make it more resonant than expected.

Brechner and co-editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas know just when to cut a shot or scene to hit the sweet spots and milk maximum comedy from the script’s ripe situational humor. It helps that the ensemble, especially the leading twosome, have such fine comic timing, although special mention should go to Telles as the long-suffering Rebecca who projects so much dignity throughout, even when soaked to the skin after an impromptu rescue from a swimming pool. Mikel Salas’ jaunty soundtrack squares the geographical and ethnic circles nicely with music that’s mostly Latin in feel but with subtle klezmeric elements. Also, never in the history of cinema has a film had a more legitimate right than this one to use Serge Gainsbourg’s tune “SS in Uruguay” over its opening credits.   

Production companies: Baobab Films, Salado, Razor Film
Cast: Hector Noguera, Nestor Guzzini, Rolf Becker, Nidia Telles, Nuria Flo, Leonor Svarcas, Gustavo Saffores, Hugo Piccinini,
Director-screenwriter: Alvaro Brechner
Producers: Alvaro Brechner, Mariana Secco
Co-producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
Director of photography: Alvaro Gutierrez
Production designer: Gustavo Ramirez
Costume designer: Alejandra Rosasco
Editors: Nacho Ruiz Capillas, Alvaro Brechner
Music: Mikel Salas
Casting director: Ines Errandonea
Sales: Memento Films

No MPAA rating, 98 minutes