AJFF Review: “Mr. Kaplan” (****)

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Héctor Noguera stars as Jacob Kaplan in “Mr. Kaplan”

It is 1937 in Sosnowiec, Poland when young Yankev Kaplan becomes a man. Renamed for the heroic biblical patriarch, the new and improved Jacob Kaplan internalizes his rabbi’s charge to seize an “exceptional destiny” of his own. Sixty years after escaping WWII alone, 76-year-old Jacob (played by Héctor Noguera, a presence in South American television since the 1960s) begins to question whether the life he’s built in Uruguay has accomplished what his father dreamt for him. “Is the world a better place because of me? How useful was I?” He asks these questions not in futility, but in hope, recalling that the likes of Goethe, Churchill, and Abraham achieved great things in old age. And so we begin to wonder with him: Does Jacob Kaplan have time to make a difference?

While watching the news one evening, Jacob learns of a WWII Nazi discovered hiding in Argentina and remembers something his granddaughter Lottie (played by the Rooney Mara-esque Nuria Fló) had told him earlier that day: she frequents a beach bar owned by an old German man she calls “the Nazi.” Echoes of “the most important case since Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s capture in 1980” intrigue Mr. Kaplan, and he devises a plan to investigate the man Lottie described. “CAPTURE, GUARD, TRANSFER” emerge as his three objectives; he will take “the Nazi” hostage and deliver him to Israel for trial.
As Jacob’s purpose materializes, so does Wilson Contreras (Néstor Guzzini). Contreras, whose father used to work for Jacob, is an unemployed alcoholic in a failing marriage. Struggling to find a purpose of his own and remembering Mr. Kaplan to be a fair man, he approaches the Kaplans for work in any capacity. Jacob resents his son Isaac’s idea that he needs a driver (though his eye doctor agrees) but agrees to employ Wilson on the basis of a different motive. If he’s going to kidnap and expose a Nazi, he’s going to need help.
With credit to Noguera’s and Guzzini’s sincere performances, verbal and nonverbal alike, Jacob and Wilson become endearing, unlikely partners, each of them on his own search for validation and prestige. “Mr. Kaplan” follows the pair as they research, investigate, and nearly botch a secret mission both men regard as the success required to overcome mediocrity and make their families proud. But do they have what it takes to complete it? What does power look like? The answer, hiding between the lines of a delightfully quick and airtight screenplay that knows the value of silence, is not what you expect.
Noguera and Guzzini star in “Mr. Kaplan”
“Mr. Kaplan,” Uruguay’s submission to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film, is immediately beautiful. I was struck not even five minutes in by humor, color, light, composition, and music implementation technically reminiscent of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry, two of my all-time favorite directors. Game over. Native Uruguayan writer/director Álvaro Brechner has only one other feature-length credit, and I consider this great news. Think of all the films still trapped in his head! Possessing zero familiarity with Uruguay’s cinematic canon, I didn’t know what to expect; according to my time spent smiling, this newfound anticipation of quality Brechner projects is a very welcome privilege. 
4 out of 5 stars.
Starting Thursday, “Mr. Kaplan” has five showings at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, three of which are sold out! Buy your tickets here.
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