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Originally published Friday, April 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Life in a Buenos Aires mall: It's a small world

Though it's set in an aging, innocuous Buenos Aires shopping mall that has seen a generation of proprietors grow gray and tired, "Lost Embrace"...

Special to The Seattle Times

Though it's set in an aging, innocuous Buenos Aires shopping mall that has seen a generation of proprietors grow gray and tired, "Lost Embrace" is shot, incongruously but playfully, like a jittery urban noir. In the opening sequence, a nervous, handheld camera whooshes through corridors between rows of near-empty stores, like a loopy "NYPD Blue" episode given an amphetamine boost.

That urgency reflects the semi-comic desperation of the film's restless, mopey hero, Ariel (Daniel Hendler), a 30-ish college dropout who works, rather ridiculously, in his mother's lingerie shop.

Chasing after Ariel's hurried movements, "Lost Embrace's" opening moments offer fleeting glimpses of a past-its-prime electronics store and neighboring beauty salon operated by the bellicose Saliganis (Atilio Pozzobon, Mónica Cabrera). There's also a failing stationery outlet owned by quiet Osvaldo (Isaac Fajn) and a fabric mart jointly owned by the Levin Brothers (Eduardo Wigutow, Arnoldo Schmidt), who are really cousins and seem long past caring about foot traffic.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Lost Embrace," with Daniel Hendler, Adriana Aizenberg, Jorge D'Elia, Sergio Boris, Silvina Bosco, Isaac Fajn. Directed by Daniel Burman, from a screenplay by Burman and Marcelo Birmajer. 100 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains adult themes and sexual situations). In Spanish with English subtitles. Metro.

We also get a hurried peek at a couple of relative newcomers, including the Kims (Catalina Cho, Pablo Kim), who fled Korea to get married and open a feng shui store. A never-busy Internet cafe managed by the scantily clad if aging Rita (Silvina Bosco) also pops into view, and a glance at Ariel's older brother, Joseph (Sergio Boris), trying to unload useless trinkets over the phone, tells us something about wayward ambitions in the boys' family.

In fact, Ariel's entire destiny has been tied to the mall's self-contained culture, which explains his low-key depression, skepticism and escapist dream of claiming Polish citizenship on the basis of European Jewish ancestry.

Myths and secrets surrounding Ariel's long-absent father, Elias (Jorge D'Elia), who never returned to his family after fighting for Israel in 1973's Yom Kippur War, are a big part of the mall's history and identity. The lingerie shop still bears Elias' name, and Ariel's mother, Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg), has spoken with him each week by phone for 30 years.

Yet for Ariel, the mystery of his father's abandonment, and his sense that some of the older shop-owners aren't telling him something important about his family's past, have left him with a melancholic yearning that won't go away.

Co-writer and director Daniel Burman, who produced "The Motorcycle Diaries," has taken a creatively disheveled approach to "Lost Embrace" that sometimes resembles random window-shopping. When Ariel drops in to chat with the Kims, the connection is fleeting, light, self-conscious — and then the film simply moves on to the next vignette.

Arguments about which of two hand-truck-wielding deliverymen is faster leads to a delightfully meaningless street race where all the mall's denizens turn out to cheer.

Burman's engagingly desultory storytelling runs out of steam just when things get truly interesting in the last half-hour. Meanwhile, Hendler's limited range as Ariel, who has to carry the entire movie, grows thin.

One would like to find his key performance more accessible and sympathetic, or at least complex, despite the character's burdens.

Still, the wit with which Burman casts an almost Shakespearean longing for purpose and direction against the tiny confines of a seedy mall is adroit and inspired.

Tom Keogh:

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