Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve seen a record eight movies coming to the Jewish Film Festival (okay, one’s actually a TV series). Here’s what I think of them, in order from Masterpiece to What were they thinking?

Emotional Arithmetic
In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to hold onto her family and her sanity. She’s overjoyed by the arrival of two old friends and fellow survivors, but their presence complicates her tricky relationship with her remote, sarcastic husband and their grown son–who appears to be devoting his life to caring for his parents. Beautifully written, designed, shot, acted, and edited, the Bergmanesque Emotional Arithmetic is simply the best new movie I’ve seen so far this year. Screenwriter Jefferson Lewis wisely avoids heavy exposition, giving us space to wonder how these people became the damaged humans they are. The near all-star cast includes Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. See my full review. Emotional Arithmetic closes both the 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.

In the Family
[Full disclosure:
Some people very close to me carry the BRCA genetic mutation.] So does Joanna Rudnick, who made this haunting and troubling film to document her own emotional struggles with the news and it’s inevitable decisions. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry the mutation, and for women it means an almost certain death by ovarian or breast cancer–unless the dangerous body parts are removed before the cancer strikes. For Rudnick, only 31 and looking forward to having children, that’s a very difficult decision. She trains her camera on her boyfriend, her family, and herself, and lets everyone speak candidly. She also goes beyond her problem and interviews others who have, or might have, BRCA, including some who found out about it or acted upon it too late. She also speaks with the scientist who discovered it and the inventor who got rich off the very expensive diagnostic test. This one stays with you. The Festival screens In the Family August 2, 5:00, at the JCCSF; August 7, 4:15, at the CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square; August 9, 5:45, at the Roda Theatre; and August 10, 2:00, at the Rafael.

Arab Labor
What does it mean to be an Israeli citizen and an Arab–not particularly political or religious–just an average Joe trying to get on in the country of your birth where you’re treated as an alien? This Israeli sitcom explores that question in ways both insightful and hilarious. Amjad, an Arab reporter working for a Jewish newspaper, struggles with indignities, tries to fit in (buying, in the first episode, a “Jewish” car so he won’t be stopped at checkpoints). Things aren’t helped by his scheming father, his love-sick Jewish photographer friend, or the wife who’s always one step ahead of him (actually, the wife helps him quite a bit). The characters don’t conform to ethnic stereotypes, but they’re always expecting others to do so. The Festival will screen all nine episodes (I’ve seen seven of them) in blocks of three episodes each, including a 3-admission marathon on August 3 at the Jewish Community Center. Episodes 1, 2, 3: July 30, 9:30, Castro; August 3, 1:30, JCCSF. Episodes 4, 5, 6: August 3, 4:00, JCCSF. Episodes 7, 8, 9: August 3, 6:30, JCCSF. Episodes 1, 4, 5: August 4, 9:45, Roda Theatre; August 6, 6:30, CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square.

The Secrets
The lesbian angle plays a smaller role in this film than you might think, although it would be a different story without it. Primarily, The Secret looks at young women trying to change the extremely parochial world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism from within. That’s not an easy–or perhaps even a possible–goal. The young women in question are the scholarly daughter of a respected rabbi (Ania Bukstein), and a rebel from France Michel (Michal Shtamler). They meet at a women’s seminary in Safed, where they secretly undertake the subversive task of helping a dying murderess prepare to meet G*d. They also discover a mutual sexual attraction and fall in love. Writers Hadar Galron and Avi Nesher (who also directed) successfully delve into an extreme and often cruel form of Judaism most of us haven’t experienced, and raise questions about forgiveness, repentance, love, and the need both to conform and to rebel. The Secrets screens on July 28, 9:30, at the Castro; August 5, 6:30, at the Roda Theatre; and August 7, 9:00, at the CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square.

Sixty Six
Twelve-year-old Bernie (Gregg Sulkin) sees his upcoming bar mitzvah, with its chance for him to be the center of all attention, as the salvation from his near-invisible life. But that everything that can go wrong with the family’s finances does, making a lavish party impossible, and the big event’s date conflicts with soccer’s Super Bowl, the World Cup. That’s a bad conflict in 1966 England. It doesn’t help that his father is a loser and his older brother (who got a big party for his bar mitzvah) is a sadist. Director Paul Weiland and his writers paint a bittersweet, funny story of a boy becoming a man under very stressful conditions. Sixty-Six plays Saturday, July 26, 7:30, at the Castro; and Saturday, August 9, 8:50, at the Rafael. It’s likely to receive theatrical distribution.

A Israeli man and a Palestinian woman, both young, meet in Berlin, fall in love/lust, have great sex, then must figure out the rest of their lives. To make matters more complicated, it’s the summer of 2006, war is raging in Lebanon, and each blames the other side for the resulting carnage. This sort of movie depends on the leads’ chemistry, and stars Liron Levbo and Lubna Azabal have it in Bogart/Bacall levels. Writers/directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor deserve praise for avoiding easy political or emotional solutions. But the film’s overly grainy, handheld photography–made worse by the scope aspect ratio and some distracting photographic clichés–hurt the storytelling. Strangers opens the festival on July 24, 6:00, at the Castro. It also plays August 2, 6:45, at the CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square; August 9, 8:15, at the Roda Theatre; and August 10, 7:30, at the Rafael.

Stalags – Holocaust and Pornography In Israel
In the early ’60’s, Israelis couldn’t get enough of the Stalags–brief novels about British and American airmen in German prison camps, where they’re tortured by beautiful female SS officers who could barely fit into their uniforms (“Who’d want to escape?” one aging former fan admits on camera). The craze was short-lived; the books were banned as pornography scarcely two years after they first appeared. Writer/director Ari Libsker explores this perverse yet fascinating way that a people came to terms with its own recent victimization. More surprisingly, he suggests a link between the Stalags and more respectable Holocaust literature. Only 62 minutes long, the Festival will screen Stalags with It Kinda Scares Me, a 60-minute documentary about a Tel Aviv drama coach that I have not seen. The double bill plays August 6, 9:30, at the Roda Theatre; August 9, 8:45, at the JCCSF; and August 10, 5:00, at the Rafael.

Love Comes Lately
A grand-niece of Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that the great writer never really accepted the fact that women threw themselves at him because he was famous. He thought he was irresistible. Such confused thinking permeates Jan Schütte’s clumsy adaptation of three Singer stories. Love Comes Lately follows the adventures of a short-story writer who’s an obvious Singer alter-ego, and dramatizes two short stories whose protagonists are obvious alter-egos of the alter-ego. Otto Tausig plays all three characters, and yes, they’re all irresistible to women. Schütte manages a few good scenes, but the movie goes nowhere and leads to nothing. Love Comes Lately screens July 27, 7:45 (the festival’s Centerpiece presentation) at the Castro; August 2, 6:45, at the Roda Theatre; August 4, 7:00, at the CinéArts @ Palo Alto Square, and August 9, at 6:45, at the Rafael.