Warmth but little sizzle at dads bar mitzvah in Chile

An unmarried and eye-catching Mexico City woman with a thriving career as a photographer, Emilia has the world by the tail. But in the movies as in real life, looks can be deceiving.

The picturesque, light-footed Mexican-Chilean film “El Brindis” (“To Life”) uproots Emilia almost immediately and dispatches her back to her birthplace of Valparaiso, Chile. The trip is prompted by obligation, not pleasure: The 80-something father she hasn’t seen in years is about to celebrate his belated bar mitzvah.

Emilia, we learn, doesn’t consider herself Jewish. Mom, who raised her in Mexico from a young age after splitting with Dad, wasn’t Jewish, and Emilia has made it a point not to inherit or adopt anything of the father she hasn’t forgiven.

In American movies, Jewish characters are typically portrayed as assimilated and unobservant but culturally Jewish. “El Brindis,” following the lead of many contemporary Latin and South American films populated by (and made by) Jews, centers on a character for whom Judaism isn’t submerged or diluted, but nonexistent.

Until, that is, Emilia meets her father’s rabbi.

Shai Agosin’s feature directorial debut is colorful, likable and engaging, but it borders on the predictable and is unlikely to rock anyone’s world. “El Brindis” screens Nov. 9 in the 12th International Latino Film Festival.

The festival has consistently programmed a handful of good-to-excellent Jewish-themed films in recent years, and this year there are three. “The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest,” a documentary about the surprising history of the Jewish community in a Peruvian town, screens Nov. 20 at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco.

And “Glass House,” which documents the successful efforts of El Salvador and its consul-general to save 30,000 Jews from the Nazis, screens Nov. 22 at Dominican University in San Rafael. It will be followed by a reception sponsored by the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Endowment Fund.

In “El Brindis,” Emilia (played by the vivacious Ana Serradilla) is resolutely independent, happy with her free agent, modern-love lifestyle. In fact, she’s a bit uncomfortable with the effusive, affectionate reception she receives from the family she doesn’t consider family — her half-brothers and sisters by her father’s first marriage.

But Emilia softens as the days pass and she bonds with her father (an easygoing José Soriano). At the same time, she finds herself drawn to the rabbi (a tall, bearded Francisco Melo) she met over a broken menorah, not realizing he’s married, albeit unhappily.

Disappointingly, Emilia becomes less feisty and less interesting as the movie unfolds. Her independent streak doesn’t vanish, but she doesn’t push the action so much as respond to the actions of the other characters. We are still touched by her eventual recognition and acceptance of her Jewish roots, and her newfound experience of belonging to a family, but our reaction is more along the lines of “Aw, that’s nice” rather than “Wow, what a life-changing trip.”

“El Brindis” is a pleasant travelogue in the company of attractive, moral characters. Like them, it has a mensch-like quality.

“El Brindis” (“To Life”) screens 4:15 p.m. Nov. 9 the Brava Theater for Women in the Arts, 2781 24th St., S.F. Latino Film Festival information or tickets: www.latinofilmfestival.org.

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.