Argentine director unearths poignant tale from his childhood

The 9-year-old hero of the charming Argentine film “Valentin” has a burning question that he wants answered: “Where’s Momma?”

By the end of the movie Valentin will add another: “Is it good to be Jewish?” It doesn’t exactly replace the first, but it reflects his awakening to more sophisticated notions of identity.

The film takes a sweet, almost sentimental, approach to a precocious child’s fervent desire for a “normal” family life. Nonetheless, it was vital to writer-director Alejandro Agresti, a veteran Argentine filmmaker who’s lived in Amsterdam for years, that his gentle autobiographical tale allude to anti-Jewish prejudice.

“Valentin,” which opens Friday, May 21, was Argentina’s official submission to the foreign language film category of this year’s Academy Awards.

The Jewish references aren’t essential to the plot, Agresti acknowledges, and he had difficulty integrating them into the story. “But it was very important to mention because I think that it’s something that nobody wants to talk about in Argentina. Argentina has one of the biggest Jewish communities — it’s the U.S. and Argentina. And then we have the biggest concentration of Nazis also after the Second World War,” he says, breaking into laughter.

“[Argentineans] can say they are not anti-Semitic but they see the Jewish people as different, and they don’t have the complete confidence [in the] Jewish people that they have in [other Argentineans].”

In the film, Valentin has lived with his paternal grandmother (played by the Spanish actress Carmen Maura) since his Catholic father and Jewish mother split up years earlier. Dad drops by to visit semi-regularly, but Mom is out of the picture — except as the butt of Grandma’s anti-Jewish jibes.

“The character of the grandmother is, well, it was my grandmother,” the gregarious Agresti says, describing her as a nice lady who was ignorant rather than anti-Semitic. “If the mother was black or Japanese or Muslim, it would be the same situation.”

Agresti was 4 years old when he was separated from his mother in the mid-’60s, and he did not see her again until he was 29. At some point, he learned that his father had abused and threatened her during their marriage.

In the film, the young Valentin is told that his mother can’t see him because she’s confined indoors until her strength and self-confidence return. It’s a moving scene, but it only hints at the brutality that Agresti’s father actually displayed.

Agresti was in his early 20s when he first visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. It didn’t tap into his Jewish identity so much as provide a window into his mother’s pain.

“It helped me to understand — I mean, I always connect with my mother,” Agresti explains during a recent visit to San Francisco. He describes the visit to the Frank house as a way of “collaborating, let’s say, in the mystery that I still had for my mother. I see my mother there, you know? Also hiding. Not going outside. And this was very powerful.”

The filmmaker, who was baptized, doesn’t observe Jewish holidays or raise his three children in the Jewish tradition. (He confides that his eldest, a 13-year-old boy, was touched to the point of tears by “Valentin.”) Nonetheless, he feels an unmistakable connection to Jews.

“I notice I always identify or get close to Jewish people,” he says, sipping a glass of port after lunch. “In a way I would like to belong. It’s one way that I get close when I work with an actor, with a crew [person]. If somebody’s Jewish, I say “OK, tell me a joke.'”

Dovetailing neatly with what some might call the defining characteristic of Jewish identity, Agresti admits to a strong affinity for Jewish humor. He cites Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Elaine May and Mike Nichols as his favorites.

But although he’s quick to laugh, one can still see the sensitive, empathetic Valentin in the adult Agresti.

“I am very concerned about suffering,” he says. “I mix the suffering of my mother with the suffering of the Jewish people.”

“Valentin” opens Friday, May 21, at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.