Alan Sabbagh on Why ‘El Rey del Once’s Berlin Film Festival Premiere Was a Milestone for Jews

Sometimes, the original Spanish title tells you more about a film than its English translation. Case in point: while The Tenth Man alludes to Jewish funeral traditions that Daniel Burman’s latest film addresses, El rey del Once’s more playful title gets at the film’s tone more obviously. Then again, one would need to know that El Once is a Buenos Aires neighborhood with a predominantly Jewish population so it makes sense that the more internationally-flavored title would shy away from such local idiosyncrasies.

In any case: Burman’s The Tenth Man, which screened at the Berlin Film Festival last year and in Tribeca earlier this year, is a tender and funny tale of a Jewish man, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh), returning to the neighborhood in Buenos Aires where he grew up where his father has set up a charity foundation to help his fellow Jewish brethren. Inspired by a real foundation in El Once, led by Usher Barilka who plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film, The Tenth Man is a meditation on heritage, family, and the curious ways life oftentimes encourages you to look back in order to move forward.

And at the center of it all is Sabbagh in a tour de force performance as Ariel who begrudges his father’s generosity with others, knowing that it was so rarely offered to him as a child. Having left for New York, he’s returning to Argentina to introduce his dancer girlfriend to his father Usher. But once she tells him she’ll have to stay in the city for a couple of auditions, and once he gets to Buenos Aires only to be greeted by commands from his father during their many cell phone conversations, Ariel finds himself touring El Once doing various errands that seem designed to keep him from ever meeting up with his estranged father. Thankfully, he finds a healthy spiritual distraction in Eva (played by Julieta Zylberberg), a devout Jewish young woman who’s keeping, it seems, a vow of silence.

Sabbagh, who had to skip the film’s Tribeca Film Festival bow (he’d become a father just the week before), won the Best Actor award from the New York fest. Though, as he told us, he’s still unsure where his award might be as he’s not yet received in the mail. That was but one of the many things we learnt when we chatted with the Argentinean actor ahead of the film’s US theatrical release. Check out some more highlights from our chat below.

The Tenth Man opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 5, 2016.

On How Burman Cast Him

I had worked on a film called Masterplan — a very indie movie, made with very little budget. That was four or five years ago. As it happens, Burman’s previous production company had been working on that film and clearly he’d liked me in that and in some other films he’d seen me in. For me that film was my first big break as a leading man and he clearly saw something that he liked. Well, and then when I eventually met Burman he told me that I was the ideal person for this role. And I was a big fan of his even before I started acting: I remember watching El abrazo partido (Lost Embrace) in theaters before I was working professionally as an actor. I remember saying to myself, one day I’d love to work with him.

On Playing Another “Ariel” In A Burman Film

“It was a bit overwhelming in that sense. How do you approach a character who’s so bothered by his past and everything it represents?”

I think he is always talking about — even though he won’t admit it — the same character and the same ideas. In a way he’s fleshing out this character over time and really digging into issues of family and community, especially in those films that feature an “Ariel.” I think he has a really interesting outlook on our relationships with family. But then I never did approach this role in terms of those other Ariel characters. And that wasn’t too hard because we spent more time just seeing how Ariel fits into El Once. Personally, I know El Once very well. I have friends and family members that work in the neighborhood and we were all very aware of wanting to channel that energy into this character, who’d grown up here but who had moved away. We wanted him to be annoyed at everything when he got back. I mean, he’s angry when he returns because he’s faced with everything that had always enraged him about his father and had distanced him from him. We worked on how to work that sense of annoyance and the very mysterious element of his relationship with Eva. It was a bit overwhelming in that sense. How do you approach a character who’s so bothered by his past and everything it represents?

On The Challenges Of Playing Ariel

Well, if anyone’s seen my previous films, you’re very aware that I’m an actor who really loves and enjoys those back and forth with other actors. That was a challenge, to find oneself not working alone (because Julieta was there, of course, doing something really special working mostly without dialogue) but of ridding oneself of needing scene partners to respond with dialogue, that was hard. At the start it was what was hardest for me. Thankfully I think we pulled it off, no? And that was while working also with a lot of non-actors. Because that’s sometimes hard too, you have to work to make sure you’re working in the same register.

‘El rey del once’
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On Working Opposite Julieta Zylberberg

“On a personal level, it was a great to be at Berlin, after more than a decade of working gigs and hoping that an opportunity like this would appear.”

Well, we knew each other though we hadn’t worked together before. But Daniel, Julieta and I worked together a lot before shooting — meetings and rehearsals — to discuss the script and the characters. Thankfully Julieta and I come from very similar acting schools. And then it was just like… magic! There really wasn’t much than connecting with the work and it was all really very easy going. We really felt like we were speaking the same language, hitting the same key, as it were.

On Taking The Film To Berlin

It was the first time I’d traveled with a film. Really, it was dream, really. It would be for any actor. Berlin is one of the biggest film festivals in the world and when I started off in this business, I never thought that I could ever get to experience that, opening the fest’s Panorama section, no less! When I was there I was talking to a friend from Buenos Aires who’s not an actor or anything, and he asked me if I was nervous and I told him, “No, I’m not even nervous because I don’t think I can actually wrap my head around the fact that this is happening.” And the film was really well received. I even got people stopping me in the streets telling me they’d caught the film and who’d been fascinated by the charity depicted in the film (I kept being asked if it was real). They were really fascinated with that aspect of the film, with that sense of goodness preached by it — that sense of doing something for others expecting nothing in return. On a personal level, it was a great to be at Berlin, after more than a decade of working gigs and hoping that an opportunity like this would appear. And you know, it was a bit of a homecoming, seeing as Berlin played such a role in what happened to many Jewish communities that to see the film embraced there — a film about the strength of the Jewish community — it was just a very proud moment for me.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.