It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Left Luggage" is one of those movies where the audience knows the message before the film begins and the characters are still learning it when the film ends. No matter how noble a film's sentiments, it's wearying to wait while elementary truths dawn gradually on slow learners. Add to this yet one more tiresome story in which the women possess all the wisdom and humanity and the men are cruel, stubborn and crazed, and you have a long slog through a parched landscape.
The movie takes place in 1972 in Antwerp, Belgium, where a young woman named Chaja (Laura Fraser) gets a job as a nanny for the Kalmans, a family of Hasidic Jews. Chaja is a Jew herself, but so indifferent to her identity that one of her best friends doesn't even realize she's Jewish. She finds the Hasidim, with their traditional black garments, strict observances and unyielding patriarchy, absurd throwbacks. But she needs the money and takes the job, and soon bonds with Mrs. Kalman (Isabella Rossellini) and her children, especially a 4-year-old named Simcha (Adam Monty).
Simcha has not started to speak. One reason for this may be the fierce tyranny with which Mr. Kalman (Jeroen Krabbe, the film's director) rules his family. He is strict, forbidding and unforgiving, in accordance with the convention in which most movie fathers are deeply flawed repositories of character defects, while their wives are bubbling reservoirs of life, wit and humanity. Gene Siskel called this the Bad Dad Syndrome, noting that we could go months at a time between films where a father was smart, gentle and caring.
At home, Chaja's parents are stuck in their own pasts. Both her father and mother (Maximilian Schell and Marianne Sagebrecht) are Holocaust survivors whose lives are still governed by the experience. The mother compulsively bakes cakes and endlessly tries to feed them to everyone within sight. The father prowls Antwerp with a map and a shovel, trying to find the spot where he buried two precious suitcases before being shipped off by the Nazis. "They're probably all moldy by now," his wife warns--and so is the labored plot device. Surely there is a more creative way to suggest a search for lost roots than to have poor Maximilian Schell up to his armpits in holes he is frantically digging in Antwerp's gardens and backyards.