Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve been able to preview five films playing at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July and August. Here, from best to worst (although none is really bad), is what I think of them:

My Mexican Shivah
Death brings families together–even families that should probably remain apart. In Alejandro Springall’s mildly comic drama (Do we call these things a dramady or a coma?), the death of the family patriarch brings out the worst, and a little of the best, in everyone. Hardly surprising; the departed apparently loved life–and women–a little too much, leaving his survivors bitter, divided, and confused. But according to Jewish law, they must spend a week in each others’ company, where old attractions and animosities must come to the surface. Particularly wonderful is Emilio Savinni as the Chassidic grandson who’s wistfully nostalgic for his wilder days. A touching, truthful, and occasionally funny look at Jewish observance and human behavior.

9 Star Hotel
Illegal immigrants suffer and endure in Israel as well as America. Actually, they’re plight is probably worse, since the Israeli/Palestinian relationship is considerably more strained than the Yankee/Mexican one. In the best cinema verite tradition, Ido Haar avoids commentary and simply follows a group of undocumented, Palestinian construction workers. We watch as they sneak across the border, work, camp out in the hills (the title reflects a joking reference to the cardboard boxes they sleep in), avoid police, and talk about the things that young men talk about all over the world. The result is a window into a difficult way of life most of us know little about.

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler
Dani (Go For Zucker) Levy’s strange little film about Hitler’s Jewish acting coach walks a thin line between absurdist comedy and Holocaust tragedy. It’s a delicate balance, and while Levy stumbles a bit, he quickly recovers and dazzles the audience. The setup: 1944 is drawing to a close, Germany is losing the war, and Hitler’s suffering from depression, So his handlers pull his Jewish former acting coach out of a concentration camp to prepare him for a major speech. The coach (The Lives of Others’ Ulrich Mühe) takes the job and begins to bond with his student while wrestling with his opportunity to change the course of history. My Fuehrer owes an obvious debt to other Holocaust-inspired comedies–notably The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful--but has a feeling all of its own.

Between Two Notes
Finally, a music documentary that’s got its priorities right–it’s about the music. Arabic classical music, to be precise, as played in Damascus, Lebanon, and mostly in Israel, by both Arabs and Jews. Some of the talk about music bringing people together and leading to world peace sounded forced and unreasonably idealistic (to say nothing of repetitive), but the discussions of musical and religious styles coming together and influencing each other proved worth listening to. And best of all, there’s the music–haunting, exciting, and digging into the depth of your soul. The musicians are captured, for the most part, not in concerts or recording studios, but playing together in living rooms, and director Florence Strauss keeps the camera tied on their faces, capturing their infectious exuberance.

Making Trouble
A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it get delve into issues of why female comics see things differently than males, the unique attributes of Jewish humor, and so forth. But before it tells you about these women’s lives and struggles, it must let you appreciate what makes these individuals special. It’s not that Rachel Talbot’s Making Trouble isn’t funny–of course, it is–but the clips it presents of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein don’t last long enough to give us a real appreciation of their work. Perhaps Talbot should have stuck to three or four subjects instead of six. If you already appreciate these artists’ work, the film entertains and educates by giving you a brief window into their lives, but it feels like a television special–hardly worthy of the big screen.