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'The Last Suit' wears its sentimentality well

You'll discover a wonderful actor you're unlikely to have ever seen before in "The Last Suit." He's a 67-year-old Argentinian actor from a theatrical family named Miguel Angel Sola. He's never before been featured in a performance as potentially popular as the one in "The Last Suit" (whose Spanish title, "El Ultimo Traje" is where you'll find what few Internet references there are).

Sola is truly wonderful in the film--so wonderful that his brilliance steamrolls delightfully over all reservations you might have. This, after all, is a shamelessly manipulative and sentimental film. Its tearjerker setup is so blatant that you might feel guilty for every eye moistening and sniffle that hit you while the movie gives your emotions a working over.

While the subject is different, think of the archetypal American TV tearjerker "Brian's Song" and you'll have some sense of how guilelessly this movie seizes on your emotional vulnerability and squeezes every drop out of you.

It's about a retired 88-year-old tailor in Buenos Aires named Abraham Burtzstein whose children, as he sees it, have sold him out. They've sold his house out from under him after he spent 50 years in it. They're in the process of arranging for doctors to amputate his right leg (ravaged, apparently, by diabetic circulation problems) and stuffing him into a "home" where he'll be warehoused now that his history has become inconveniently lengthy.

He's unsentimental about both his right leg and his death. He calls his leg "tzures"("tsurus" or "tzurus" is the Yiddish word for trouble or travail)/ He just wants both legs attached to do one thing more before death: he wants to travel back to Poland and give a suit he made to the old family servant and friend in Lodz who saved his life after the war.

In the state of demographic omni-terror that has seized American entertainment for many decades, we're uneasy with a movie dependent on such an old subject (the survival and final life task of a proud Holocaust survivor) and such an outrageously sentimental approach.

But that's where the movie's lack of sophisticated pretense conquers all. It all depends on Sola and he's a total charmer. The movie bets that its emotions are so direct that younger audiences who have been consuming irony straight since the womb will respond to the aftermath of the Holocaust's horrors and tragedies more than a half century after the fact. All they need is a lack of emotional clutter and one final journey to sympathize with.

Abraham encounters younger people throughout his journey. All of them find him inconvenient at first, to put it mildly. But they all wind up responding because their own self-image of decency won't permit anything else. And while they do, he charms them to pieces--something they hadn't quite counted on.

His own daughter in Madrid--who wasn't treated well by him when he retired--ends up rescuing his quixotic journey to Lodz against her will.

And that is where this near-miraculous Argentinian actor gets this movie to work against all odds. This guy isn't just a charmer, he's a theatrical vet and obvious virtuoso. He can be wry or comic or tragic or pathetic or foolish or abrasive or just about anything else an old man can be, without undermining his charisma for a second. Abraham may have become extraneous to a generation that has forgotten to be horrified by its own selfishness. But when he meets them on his trip, that tattooed number on his arm forces them to rethink everything.

A Hollywood makeup team would have been more convincing making a 67-year-old actor play 88 believably, but that artifice is part of the point. His efforts to look and act younger only accentuate how old he is. They make all efforts to help him that much more rewarding to everyone.

So against all odds, the movie gets away with dramatic murder, so to speak. Sola's personality and charisma keep you in its corner. Think of Jack Nicholson--who is 13 years older than Sola--as a comparable actor calling up four or five contrary emotions in one performance.

Now that we've seen Sola, the next step is for some of Hollywood's best to figure out parts in our movies that will show him off to the world as the wonderful actor he is.

My feeling is that at 67, he doesn't need the world's regard nearly as much as it needs him.


"The Last Suit" ("El Ultimo Traje")

3.5 stars (out of four)

Miguel Angel Sola and Angela Molina in Pablo Solarz' film about an 88-year old Argentinian Holocaust survivor who returns home to Poland for one final life errand. 86 minutes. No rating but PG equivalent. In Spanish with subtitles.

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