- Written by Jefferson Lewis, from a book by Matt Cohen
- Directed by Paolo Barzman
When you attend a lot of film festivals, you’re often amazed and disappointed about what doesn’t get a regular release. As I write this, Emotional Arithmetic has no American distributor. Considering not only the film’s exceptional quality but also its high-wattage cast, I find this hard to believe and very sad. I’ll repost this review, minus this paragraph, if someone comes to their sense and releases this film. In the meantime, I strongly urge you catch one of its four Jewish Film Festival screenings.
Director Paolo Barzman starts by announcing his considerable ambitions. Over shots of a lonely, rural house with a spectacular view, Susan Sarandon’s voice doubts the existence of God. The camera then takes us to different locations in and around the house, where Sarandon, Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow all look thoughtful and unhappy. The sequence ends with an overhead shot of a table, set for dinner, in a lovely outdoor spot.
Even without Von Sydow’s presence, the Bergman homage is unmistakable.
Like the Bergman of Through a Glass Darkly, Barzman will put some very close, very troubled people together a little ways from civilization, and let them confront themselves, each other, and their inner demons. He succeeds beautifully.
Sarandon plays Melanie, the heart and soul of the film (and pretty much its only woman). An American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985), she lives on a Quebec farm with her husband David (Plummer), their grown son Ben (Roy Dupuis), and Ben’s young son Timmy (Dakota Goyo). This is not a happy family. Never truly recovered from her traumatic childhood, Melanie swings from mood to mood, takes wild risks, and skips her medication. David cheats on his wife, risks another heart attack, and employs sarcasm where compassion would be more appropriate. Ben, the nurturer, ignores his own needs to care for his parents, cooking for them and making sure they take their meds.
Into this dysfunctional family come Melanie’s two friends from the camp. Jacob (Von Sydow) survived not only the Holocaust but also the Gulag and a Soviet insane asylum. Christopher (Byrne) never got over his childhood crush on Melanie.
I don’t want to tell you too much about the story–or even the back story. Screenwriter Jefferson Lewis wisely avoids heavy exposition, even in a movie about people’s past. No one ever sits down and clearly recounts the full story of Melanie, Jacob, and Christopher’s Holocaust experience; we piece most of it together through off-hand comments. Other issues, including the absence of Timmy’s mother, never get explained. So completely do we believe in these characters that the lack of information only enhances the experience.
This is an actor’s film with a nearly all-star cast (Roy Dupuis being the only relative unknown among the leads). Everyone gives a masterful performance. But Sarandon really carries the day, operating on several levels at almost every moment. She can be joyful, determined, ecstatic, playful, desperate, and ready to explode, all at once. And yet you never feel that it’s a performance. If this Canadian picture ever gets decent exposure in the U.S., every other actress should just kiss that year’s Oscar goodbye.
Not that acting is the only skill on display here. Emotional Arithmetic is also beautifully written, designed, shot, and edited. And I guess that all means it’s beautifully directed, as well. Let me put it simply: This is the best new film I’ve seen this year.
Emotional Arithmetic closes both the Jewish Film Festival‘s Castro run and the festival in its entirety. It screens July 31, 8:30, at the Castro; August 2, 9:15, at the Roda Theatre; August 5, 6:45, at the CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square; and August 11, 8:45, at the Rafael.