The history of Jewish immigration to Latin America remains unknown to many, but in the 1920s and 1930s many countries, especially Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, opened their borders to Jews after the U.S. imposed quotas on European arrivals. Later in the 1940s, as many were fleeing Nazi Germany’s takeover of Europe, there were new restrictions placed on visas granted to Jews — still, it is estimated that more than 20,000 Holocaust survivors resettled in places like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Panama among other countries. Today, there are half a million people of Jewish descent living in Latin America.
Since the majority of Latin American countries are almost exclusively Christian (Catholic, evangelicals, and everything in between) our Jewish Latinos tend to get ignored, especially at this time of year. So, we put together this list of movies that give us a glimpse of Jewish life in Latin America. There are eight films, one for each day of Hanukkah. It’s a mix of comedy, drama, and documentaries — and we snuck a ninth movie in there, for that extra menorah candle.
O ano em que meus pais saíram de férias
A milestone of Brazilian cinema, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation tells the story of 12-year-old Mauro, left behind as his political activist parents flee the repressive Brazilian dictatorship. Now taken in by São Paulo’s tightly knit Jewish community, Mauro will come of age against a backdrop of fear and political repression on the one hand and Brazil’s euphoria over their participation in the 1970 World Cup.
Un beso a esta tierra
During the 1920s and 30s many Jewish people left the instability of Europe to begin a new life across the Atlantic in, among other places, Mexico. Even though history would prove this to be wise judgment, in many cases recent arrivals struggled to assimilate into an unfamiliar society and would never again see loved ones who stayed behind. This film was inspired by the story of Jewish director Goldberg’s own grandparents, who finally settled in Cuba having moved around Europe in the 30s and fled France at the outbreak of World War II. It is the first in a trilogy of documentaries from Goldberg exploring the subject of Judaism in Mexico, along with En los Pasos de Abraham (In the Footsteps of Abraham), about a spiritual journey undertaken by three men from Veracruz, and the short film Pasos a la Eternidad (Steps to Eternity), which centers on an elderly man finding solace in faith as his health fails.
Señor Jacobo is a man of few words, a joyless owner of a sock factory who is definitely in the camp of those who live to work not work to live. His faithful assistant, the middle-aged Marta, helps run the factory and keeps even his minimal living needs in order but when Sr. Jacobo’s brother plans to visit Jacobo asks Marta to help put his life not only in order but on display. Good sport Marta gamely agrees to play the part of his wife so Jacobo pretends he actually has a personal life for the sake of impressing his married brother. They play their parts extremely well, Marta the perfect Susie homemaker and Jacobo the average bored, bitter husband. But it isn’t until the two agree to travel on invitation from Jacobo’s brother to a faded resort the brothers visited as children that we learn some easy and some hard truths about life, responsibility, joy, and the legacy of Jewish immigrants in Uruguay and beyond.
El abrazo partido
Actor Daniel Hendler gives neuroticism a fresh update (and charms his way through it in a way Woody Allen never could) as Ariel, a young Argentino on a nutty quest for identity and a sense of belonging that his absent father never gave him. Ariel’s Jewish family emigrated from Eastern Europe, Poland to be specific, and Ariel is suddenly trying to gain Polish citizenship to given himself an identity as a “European.” In a hilarious scene with a Polish administrator, he cites his “urgent” reasons to seek Polish citizenship as Roman Polanski, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II, getting nailed on his nonexistent Polish pronunciation every time. Ariel is also questioning his own history and paternity trying to piece together the story of his father who left the family for Israel to fight in the 1973 war. Set amidst merchants in a Buenos Aires mall who deal in goofy gear that people don’t need, the search for meaning is one that takes place among the meaningless, the absurdity in everyday and the ties that bind sometimes hides a much deeper resonance.
Morirse está en hebreo
Alejandro Springall’s comedy centers on the seven-day Shivah ceremony celebrating the life of Moishe, a recently-departed old boy whose appetite for the good life outweighed his adherence to faith. Nevertheless, custom dictates that Shivah be observed in order to send Moishe on his way to the afterlife. As various dysfunctional family members and associates – among them an embittered daughter, a fugitive grandson gone orthodox, and the local rabbi – descend on Moishe’s apartment in Mexico City’s Jewish Quarter under the pretext of paying their respects, a series of internecine feuds and brooding affairs come to the fore. It’s one of those where, although Moishe may be missed, he’s probably best off away from it all.
The military dictatorship which governed Argentina from 1976-1983 was one of the most brutal in Latin American history. Over 30,000 people were disappeared by the authorities, while countless others were detained and tortured. Jewish filmmaker Juan Mandelbaum returns to his home country after thirty years living abroad to trace the legacy of military rule, while drawing parallels between the Argentine dictatorship and the holocaust. As with the Nazis, the military junta sought to erase the memory of its victims. Films like this act as a means of preserving that memory and as such play a role in overcoming the traumatic past. This story is partly personal, as Mandelbaum recalls a disappeared ex-girlfriend and others he knew, but the dictatorship is a tragedy that affects all Argentines, even those born following the restoration of democracy.
A comedy satire riffing on (in this case Chilean) society’s obsession with physical appearance, Ilusiones Ópticas’ confused characters meander through life in a cloud of self-crisis and moribund desire. Sex, breast implants and DIY-circumcision occupy their thoughts, mainly in the name of bringing about some life changes via the medium of bodily transformation. Juan is granted eyesight after a lifetime of blindness and realizes the folly of the world, while Manuela wrestles with that old dilemma: the pros and cons of a boob job. Seeking to reconnect with his Jewish faith, David’s teenage son is giving serious consideration to some – you suspect unadvisable – downstairs self-alteration. None of it seems likely to end well.
Named after an old Yiddish song, this all-encompassing documentary, which won the Jewish Experience Award at the 2012 Jerusalem Film Festival, tells the family history of its Argentinean director, Gastón Solnicki, through the massive amounts of footage he has collected from home videos shot over the years. Along with the archival material, Solnicki also interviews members of his Jewish family, including his grandmother who, as a teenager, escaped her Nazi captors and survived the Holocaust. With a voyeuristic approach to his filmmaking, Solnicki is able to connect his audience to his personal history through intimate and realistic scenes that are hard to shake.
Cinco días sin Nora
This Mexican dark comedy directed by then first time director/writer Mariana Chenillo begins with its title character, Nora (Silvia Mariscal), an Orthodox Jew, committing suicide on the eve of Passover. Her atheist ex-husband José (Fernando Luján) is left to handle the funeral, which includes all the Jewish customs and rituals that make planning her burial more than José can manage. Will José go against all her wishes and give her a quick Catholic burial, or has Nora found a way to make everything difficult for José even in the afterlife? Nora’s Will won Best Picture at the Ariel Awards (Mexico’s equivalent to the Academy Awards).