A Viennese Holocaust survivor becomes a boisterous restaurateur in Brussels, feeding his devoted diners Jewish delicacies while nourishing his outsized love of cinema, to cover and thwart his past emotional trauma, in this enchantingly inventive tale. Saül Birnbaum runs a lively delicatessen adorned with film posters and movie paraphernalia, staffed by waitresses on roller skates. He spontaneously spouts dialogue, usually in English, from his favorite films, or croons with gusto a nearly accent-free version of Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” But having barely escaped the Shoah by Kindertransport to Belgium in the early forties, he is haunted by memories of separating from his parents and his ever-present yearning as a youngster to reunite with them.
Endeavoring to confront and overcome his profound sadness, Saül works with his protégé Joakin, a young Chilean director, to write a screenplay of his childhood story replete with specific recollections, for instance, a teacher ostracizing and rejecting him for being Jewish in a mostly gentile school. With his large and affable personality, he persuades a film critic to polish the rough script into a truly professional piece the filming of which is woven through the narrative. And his vigorous charisma also wins him attention from the ladies and affection from his delightful cast of employees.
Despite Saül’s joviality and sprightly generosity as he awards food and drinks to winners of his impulsive movie trivia contests, we get a keen sense of the inner anguish he endures. Alternating present-day 1987, set mostly in his café, with flashbacks of being with his parents as the Nazi menace loomed, and his life with a foster couple who lovingly nurtured him into his teen years, we feel as he does: the past is always with us…flirtatious and spirited is just a façade.
Suddenly Hannah, a comely blonde with a winning, vulnerable smile, enters the scene amid spirited goings-on. When she answers a trivia question with a Godard quote, “Cinema is truth 24 times a second,” Saül is smitten, falling hard for the nearby cinematheque’s mysterious projectionist with enigmas of her own. The spot-on casting, particularly of Simon Abkarian (Gett, 2015 AJFF) as Saül, the inventive script (and script-within-a-script), a plethora of colorful characters, and the poignant, heated chemistry between Saül and Hannah, will more than warm your soul and delight all your senses.