Media: When Rafi met Leni ...

Only Human stars Guillermo Toledo and Norma Aleandro take a peek at their review.

If you took Hannah and Her Sisters, fed it a mite-too-many whiskey sours, and coaxed it gently-but-firmly into a threesome with a Neil Simon farce and Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage (or its French progenitor), the resulting cinematic kiddo — if taught lispy Castilian and versed in the homegrown tumult of the Middle East — might reach adulthood bearing a striking resemblance to Seres Queridos, a recent import from Spain that (unofficially) may just nab the title “Funniest Spanish-Language Rom-Com Concerning the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.”

Like The Birdcage, or Simon’s Rumors, Only Human (as Queridos is known stateside, though its title translates literally to “Beloved Beings”), transpires over the course of a single evening. We open abruptly, on Leni (Marián Aguilera), a pretty, pert-nosed redhead, and Rafi (Guillermo Toledo), a tall, dark-haired, bespectacled fellow, waiting side-by-side and rather uneasily for an elevator. She’s Jewish and a pragmatic Spanish television star; he’s a mild-mannered Palestinian college professor who has lived in Spain since childhood. More importantly: They’re engaged, in love, and on their way to meet her family. And there, naturally, is where the film’s “wacky fun” portion begins. In short order, we’re introduced to: Leni’s mother Gloria (Norma Aleandro), the frazzled, pill-popping matriarch, oblivious to the apparent possibility that her oft-absent husband could be having an affair; older sister Tania (María Botto), an embittered, slutty, part-time belly-dancer who has a different assignation planned for each night of the week; Tania’s 6-year-old daughter Paula, who’s almost unendurably cute, but seems to be fostering some early-onset anger issues (as well as the belief that she’s pregnant with twins); David (Fernando Ramallo), Leni’s 19-year-old brother, who has recently dedicated himself to Orthodox Judaism and keeps an injured duck as a companion; and Dudu, the blind, 89-year-old, Israeli- Army-veteran grandfather who brandishes a loaded rifle and brags gleefully about his days of “Arab-killing.”

Into this veritable quirk-storm (which, as it turns out, proves rather fecund ground for subplots and brief comic digressions — who knew?) walks the happily mismatched couple. Things actually seem to be going fairly well until Rafi realizes that the relative lack of tension is due partly to the fact that Leni has heretofore more or less allowed her family to believe that her fiancé is Israeli. Soon enough, though, they set the record straight (Rafi “comes out” to Leni’s shocked mother), and everything begins to head south. When an errant attempt to defrost soup (in a brilliant physical-comedy bit by Toledo) culminates in a possible accidental homicide, it touches off a chain of increasingly uncomfortable events that seem more and more irreparably catastrophic.

The successful melding of “quirky comedy” with “screwball humor” and “moviewith- a-message” is a tough nut, and one that isn’t attempted often. Too often, ham-handedness and/or too-visible effort spoil one or more of the aims, and bring the rest of the ship down in the process. David O. Russell’s / Heart Huckabees (2004) was a soaring achievement in this arena, but is a rarity; more common is likable but overwrought fare like Garden State. Seres Queridos falls somewhere between these relative extremes. There are one or two lines to quietly groan at, depending on your mood, and bits like the pet duck seem a bit contrived, or at least caught in limbo betwixt subtlety and silliness. To its credit, though, and to that of husband-and-wife writing-and-directing team Harari and Pelegri, such snags are outnumbered and overshadowed by genuine, hearty laughs and inspired moments, like the tidy, rather even-handed, minute-or-so deconstruction of the Palestinian-Israeli debate via a bathroom yelling match. (Politics do take a backseat to entertainment, though — the conflict is used more to further the plot than the other way around.) All told, the film strikes a good balance: committed performances ground absurd situations, and good timing (particularly on Toledo’s part) allows most every joke to hit. A sober examination it ain’t, quite, but then, seriously — how funny was Munich?  

Seres Queridos (Only Human)
Dir. and writ. Dominic Harari, Teresa Pelegri;
feat. Guillermo Toledo, Marián Aguilera, María
Botto, Fernando Ramallo, Norma Aleandro (R)

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