Dry as a Dry Martini

I’ve often thought that the dry martini was invented by a Jew. Dry, tart, with a spark and a hidden kick, it’s a lot like Jewish humor. That thought crossed my mind most recently as I was watching Silvia Prieto, a 1999 film by Jewish-Argentine director Martin Rejtman, which will be playing at the IFC Center (Sixth Avenue at 3rd St.) November 3-5.

The title character of the film is a pleasing young woman (Rosario Blefari) who is suffering from an acute lack of direction. On her 27th birthday, she decides it is time to completely change her life. So she goes to the laundromat and washes her clothes. She also takes a new job as a waitress in a local cafe, then has coffee with her ex-husband. For Silvia, this apparently constitutes opening up new horizons.

Marcelo, her ex (Marcelo Zanelli), looks her over and says with concern, “You’ve put on weight.”
“The shirt is a size too small,” she replies in a matter-of-fact tone.
“They gave me the wrong bag of clothes at the laundromat.”
She pauses, then adds, “I’ll have to go on a diet.”

It’s a perfect non sequitur, delivered in a perfect, logical deadpan, and it sets the tone for the wry lunacy that follows, a series of interlocking shaggy-dog stories involving TV dating shows, the endless exchange of unwanted gifts, the theft of an Armani jacket that manages improbably to make its way back to its owner, and Silvia’s discovery that there is another Silvia Prieto in the Buenos Aires phonebook.

Rejtman’s Buenos Aires is a hermetically incestuous collection of interlocking friendships, sort of a tangofied variation on Woody Allen’s Upper West Side-as-microcosm-of-New York, only a lot funnier and less pompous. It seems as if everyone in the film either went to school together, went to bed together or worked together at some incredibly low-level job. So Marcelo dates Brite (the delightful Valeria Bertucelli), who hands out samples of a detergent named — of course — Brite; Brite’s masseuse is engaged to a classmate of Marcelo’s who she met on a TV show; Brite’s ex turns out to be a classmate of theirs, and ends up dating Silvia, who ends up working with Brite. And so on.

What makes all this nonsense work brilliantly is Rejtman’s utterly deadpan, uninflected treatment of the material. It is as if Robert Bresson had directed a script by Hal Hartley. Rejtman’s unblinking camera and dryly witty cutting rhythms give the film a comic charge that goes well beyond the charms of the script and acting.