Movie Review: A rabbi hunts for donors abroad — “Shalom Taiwan”

“Slight” can be a great virtue in an intimate indie film, especially when it’s paired with “twee.”

That’s the potential we’re looking for when we sit down to “Shalom Taiwan,” an Argentinian comedy/travelogue about a Buenos Aires rabbi who goes where the money is — now — in seeking donors among the well-heeled who work in the economy known as “The Asian Tiger,” th island of Taiwan.

Alas, director and co-writer Walter Tejblum’s wistful dramedy never amounts to much of anything at all. With low stakes, limited laughs and enervated scenes that should crackle with warmth and wit, but don’t, it’s too slight for its own good.

Fabián Rosenthal is Aaron, the rabbi of a temple and community center that’s just starting to make a mark. He is warmth personified, and something of a dynamo — full of plans for a soup kitchen, food pantry and daycare center at his already-renovated temple, and just as full of advice for his rabbinical protege’ Jonny (Santiago Korovsky).

Interested in the cute clerk at the temple? Hit her with this pickup line — “You may not be perfect, but your flaws are quite charming.” No, it doesn’t go over in Spanish any better than it reads in English.

And about the temple’s mortgage, which allows these big dreams — “A rabbi without debt is a rabbi without projects!”

But it’s not his congregation that covers their finances. It’s wealthy New York Jewish backers. With their $150,000 temple-improvement loan coming due, Aaron jets off to NYC for a little do-re-mi. Little does he realize that the Argentine economy isn’t the only basket case in international money matters. “Not a good time for us,” his donors tell him. Small checks are all he can hope for.

“There are 200 companies in Taiwan” that are competing and beating him, one penthouse pauper complains.

With Aaron’s “Business is business” lender (Carlos Portaluppi) already ready to foreclose, there’s nothing for it but to leave the wife and three babies and fly halfway around the world to secure a future for his other baby.

The culture shock we expect Aaron to be caught up in is barely glimpsed. He’s got a local rabbi who gives him contacts, and he’s off — stuck pitching one rich businessman as he spends a day at an amusement park with his son, walking the terraced rows of a tea plantation with another, getting a check here, a brushoff there and a $1 bill at one point.

Rosenthal is engaging enough as the lead. But Tejblum can barely wring a laugh or more than a drop of charm out of any of it. And with so little overt comedy — cruising karaoke bars with a smitten young woman whose rich mother wants her talked out of her current slacker crush, impatiently poking the ever-so-patient and monk-like tea leaf picker — one finds oneself grasping at bigger meaning, a life lesson that the alleged Orthodox sage can learn from others or teach himself.

One can grasp and hope all one wants. There just isn’t much to grab hold of here and not much to this other than some pretty pictures, a few featherweight stereotypes — Argentine, American, Taiwanese and Jewish — and a whole lot of potential pretty much squandered.

Rating: some profanity

Cast: Fabián Rosenthal, Sebastián Hsu, Carlos Portaluppi and Mercedes Funes

Credits: Directed by Walter Tejblum, scripted by Sergio Dubcovsky and Walter Tejblum An Outsider Pictures release.

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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