Picking up the first ever audience award at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival, the Spanish language drama The Last Suit predictably, but assuredly balances a story of an elderly man’s final wishes with the crushing weight of European history. The latest film from writer-director Pablo Solarz is fairly straightforward in its aims to uplift viewers, but it’s held together nicely thanks to a dynamic, expert leading performance from Miguel Ángel Solá.
88 year old Abraham Bursztein (Solá) is a proudly traditional Jewish old man and retired tailor who demands respect and acknowledgment from those closest to him. This hasn’t stopped two of his three daughters from making arrangements to have their elderly and visibly infirm father transferred to an old folks’ home. Despite a badly injured leg that only gets worse by the day, such a transfer and step towards his inevitable death is understandably undesirable. The Buenos Aires resident – who moved to the South American city after fleeing Europe during World War II – has one final item on his life’s to do list: a trip back to Europe that he’s been putting off for far too long. On the night before he’s scheduled to leave his home for good, Abraham more or less liquidates all his assets and makes hasty travel plans to go to Warsaw in an effort to properly thank an estranged friend who saved his life during the Nazi occupation of Poland. With no direct flights available at the last second, Abraham will have to fly to Spain and travel by rail via France and Germany. Along the way, he’ll meet various Europeans who will have a great emotional and educational impact on his journey, all of whom wonder if the man Abraham hasn’t spoken to in seventy years is still alive and in the same location he remembers.
With few holocaust and World War II survivors remaining in the world today, it’s not hard to see the poignancy in a film like The Last Suit. Solarz’s film functions as a kind-hearted elegy for those who lived through a regrettable era that will be remembered and mourned long after they’ve passed away. It’s made with tremendous respect and empathy towards those who’ve been physically, psychologically, and emotionally damaged by World War II, but instead of making a film where Abraham influences and impacts the hearts and minds of the people he meets along his travels, The Last Suit instead becomes a story about an obstinate and understandably hardened old man learning to trust Europeans again. It’s a difficult journey for Abraham; one so emotionally fraught that he can’t even bring himself to say “Poland,” thinking for many decades that it was a dirty word loaded with horrible connotations. While he’s staunchly in favour of making the potentially fruitless trip, and he greatly believes that it’s a better use of his time and resources than wasting away under nursing care, he’s not prepared for any sort of emotional catharsis or personal revelations that aren’t tied to the trip’s ultimate goal.
Along the way, Abraham will come into contact and friendship with various Europeans who will provide various levels of emotional and financial assistance, most of which is fairly contrived and convenient, even by the standards of such a feel good movie. He develops a bit of a crush on an equally crusty hotel owner (Angela Molina), shows some charity towards a father trying to illegally cross back into Europe (Martin Piroyansky), reconnects with the estranged daughter that was pushed away by her dad’s abrasive neediness (Natalia Verbeke), and hesitantly converses with a German anthropologist (Julia Beerhold) about how her country has changed and sought repentance in various social and political forms. Each role is well constructed and plays nicely into Abraham’s unwitting search for self, but none of them hang around long enough to make a lasting impact, and their contributions feel pat and ultimately only half inspired. Each new acquaintance made by Abraham serves to heal only one of the old man’s problems at a time, and there’s little mystery or spontaneity to be found. The predictability of these interactions causes The Last Suit to drag instead of sustaining any sort of storytelling momentum. They’re interesting people, but it’s apparent that each of them are only on hand to deliver an inevitable speech to Abraham that will unsubtly underline the previously unseen reasons for his trip. It’s not subtle, but thankfully Solarz never stages any of this in cloying or inauthentic ways. It’s somewhat lazily written, but Solarz at least knows how to direct and stage it all properly.
What makes The Last Suit so compelling and watchable is Solá’s complex leading performance. Solarz’s material is always in danger of portraying Abraham as a somewhat unlikable person with understandable and sympathetic aims. Solá (playing someone considerably older than he is in real life) balances the old man’s desire for attention and affection with his powerful sense of duty. The Last Suit is akin to watching someone who has suffered great trauma and heartache going through therapy for the first time. In the years since he left Europe, Abraham has clearly loved, lost, fought, and hurt some of the people closest to him, but he’s never taken the time to properly heal or examine the events that made him the man he is today. Solá’s delicate and nuanced work – in a film that has great delicacy, but little nuance – balances the old man’s single-minded goals and emotional repression with a slowly building epiphany for the character this his journey is more about healing and less about giving thanks. Even when the rest of the film feels too rigid and clichéd for its own good, Solá’s work makes sure that The Last Suit remains a surprisingly captivating experience.
It’s not hard to see why The Last Suit would pick up an audience choice award at any festival that chose to play it. The subject matter lends itself well to grand emotional releases, the humour is genteel and multigenerational, and despite being built around a tragic centre, it’s never too challenging or thought provoking. Everything The Last Suit has to offer is surface level and worn on its metaphorical sleeve, but by those standards it still has to be considered a success. Without Solá this could have been bland and tedious, but thankfully Solarz has found the perfect leading man to make The Last Suit into something that earns its status as an ethnically specific crowd pleaser.
The Last Suit opens at Cineplex Empress Walk in Toronto on Friday, August 17, 2018. It opens in theatres across Quebec on August 24.
Check out the trailer for The Last Suit:
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