Professor Bernstein's Must-See Films

12/17/2014

In its 15th year, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival again offers a copious array of extraordinary films that provide fresh perspectives on the place of Jews and Jewish history within our complex world. These cinematic jewels, from short films to the myriad feature-length documentaries and narratives, arrive here from numerous cultures and countries, having been selected by our diligent evaluation committee.

The festival is a rare opportunity to see terrific movies, most of which would otherwise not be available to Atlanta audiences. It’s moreover the chance to watch these films with an enduring community of intelligent and intensely engaged movie-lovers. 

Given so many treasures, it’s hard to pick favorites. For a fine documentary on the young men and women who defend Israel, check out Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front. See Apples from the Desert and especially Félix and Meira for dramas about Orthodox Jews stepping into secular life. The Physician is a German-made but English language big-budget, sweeping, old-style spectacular about a Christian English boy who impersonates a Jew to study medicine in Middle Ages Egypt. Zemene movingly portrays a Jewish doctor and his ten-year-old Ethiopian patient.

We have two documentaries on American food: Deli Man energetically and affectionately profiles the people behind the counter, while Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream recounts the endeavors of an enduring family business. The Outrageous Sophie Tucker details the now forgotten but astonishing showbiz career of an Orthodox-raised Jewish entertainer who became “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Comedies include the documentary Comedy Warriors: Healing through Humor, and the extremely funny, fish-out-of-German-and-Israeli-water, Anywhere Else.

Bottom line, I urge you to view as many films as possible; here are my standout recommendations.

24 DAYS

The 2006 news reports of the dire kidnapping of French-Jewish 25-year-old Ilan Halimi, just because he was Jewish and therefore presumably rich, were mind-boggling. Alexandre Arcady’s intense reenactment of that ordeal is an emotionally compelling, edge-of-your-seat police procedural. The suspense is unrelenting as Arcady cross-cuts among the African, Arab and white French kidnappers, the massive police search effort and the emotional unraveling of Ilan’s family that grows skeptical of the authorities’ methods and mindset. This outstandingly played, pulsating docudrama about a major crossroad in the history of French Jews and the definition of hate crimes in France delivers a powerful emotional wallop. 

ABOVE AND BEYOND

This account of mostly Jewish-American WWII veteran pilots, who at great risk decided to aid an air force-less Israel during its 1948 battles of independence, is exhilarating. With newsreels, interviews, photos, reenactments, and special effects from George Lucas’s renowned Industrial Light and Magic, Above and Beyond plays like a true-life Indiana Jones-style adventure story. The surviving pilots are born storytellers who recount with passion, humor and occasional well-placed Yiddish-isms, their maneuvers and derring-do (aeronautical, and even sometimes, sexual), their triumphs and their losses...a definite do-not-miss. Other fine films about Israeli and/or Jewish history include The Prime Ministers: The Soldiers and Peacemakers; 1913: Seeds of Conflict; and My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes.

DANCING ARABS

AJFF favorite Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree) works with first-rate actors and a brilliant script by Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua, who adapted his semi-autobiographical novel, to yield superb filmmaking. The smart, honorable, music-loving Palestinian teen Eyad (superb Tawfeek Barhom) endures ostracism and racist taunts when he enrolls in a prestigious Jerusalem boarding school, where he quietly “dances” between Arab and Jewish life and values, mastering the history of Israel’s 1948 triumphant battles with Arab states, yet delivering a devastating critique of Israeli literature’s image of the Arab. This and Eyad’s Jewish appearance to authorities are two of the many paradoxes informing his story. As the ironies accumulate, so does great melancholy, in this carefully modulated, humane and heartbreaking portrait of the ties that bind and divide.

DOUGH AND SERIAL (BAD) WEDDINGS

Cultures and religions clash in a major way when an observant, old-school Jewish London baker (Jonathan Pryce) reluctantly takes on teenaged Muslim refugee Ayash (Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. Dough underlines how much they have in common (ritual prayers; the world closing in around each), while Ayash’s drug dealing “mixed” with baking gives way to hilarious scenes, with terrific British pros in supporting roles. In the same comic vein, Serial (Bad) Weddings, an absolute favorite, is a riotous farce about prejudice, intermarriage and the multiracial face of contemporary France — the polar opposite of 24 Days.

THE FAREWELL PARTY

It’s said that comedy allows us to deny our eventual mortality, but here’s a film that embraces both comedy and the ethical dilemmas surrounding euthanasia. The opening scene immediately establishes that self-styled inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) has a whimsical penchant for playing God. His assembled team of retired experts (a gay veterinarian who knows drugs and his married ex-cop lover who knows the law) devises a humane method to help a suffering friend die. Their competence vies with frequent ineptitude, and unintended consequences ensue. Strong performances all around, and nimble, adroit shot framing, editing and comic timing make this unique film a true highlight of the festival. 

GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM

The creative team and cast that delivered To Take a Wife and The Seven Days have reunited in this astonishing third portrait of the despondent Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) and her passive-aggressive, religiously observant but crushingly possessive husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). If you think American divorce proceedings are difficult, Gett really puts things in perspective: the Orthodox court’s judges will make your head spin as they routinely side with men, and pose intimate, arbitrary questions to Viviane, her secular attorney and her often amusing friends and family called as witnesses. Elkabetz, often silent, remains an explosive screen presence, while festival favorite Sasson Gabai turns in an award-winning performance as Elisha’s brother/attorney. The pared down setting — here, just a courtroom and corridor — and carefully controlled shot compositions, mimic and confirm the suffocation and anguish that Viviane experiences. This top-notch drama is Israeli filmmaking at its finest.

THE GO-GO BOYS

This lively documentary from director Hilla Medalia (last year’s Dancing in Jaffa), provides a brisk, witty, up-close-and-personal look at an Israeli filmmaking duo. In the 1980s and early ’90s they briefly dumbfounded Hollywood with a string of wildly successful “B” action movies and high art entries (vintage clips aplenty) before a crash-and-burn. The late, gregarious showman, producer/director Menachem Golan, in all his glorious bluster, addresses everything but his late-career flameout, as does his quiet, younger cousin Yoram Globus, the financier charged with funding Golan’s schemes. Not only could they complete each other’s sentences, they “signed each other’s checks.” As Hostel director and Inglourious Basterds star Eli Roth admiringly tells us, “They brought us ninjas, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and breakdancing.” You may not be a devotee of their films, but you will applaud these chutzpah-charged movie moguls.

HORSES OF GOD

This potent, utterly involving film renders in intimate detail how aimless Muslim youth can grow up extremely poor, without father figures, in a North African slum, and be lured into becoming so-called horses of god, that is, members of Islamic terrorist groups that offer a sense of (utterly destructive) purpose. In its evocation of that milieu; in its first-rate cinematography; in director Nabil Ayouch’s masterful buildup of suspense; and in the believable, compelling performances of the non-professionals, Horses of God is a more contemplative (and far less violent) version of the Brazilian blockbuster, City of God.

THE LAST MENSCH

Swiss-born film and television star Mario Adorf achieved prominence in the 1970s when New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff cast him as a villain in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Tin Drum. Adorf, now 84, is the focus of this skillfully acted, deeply moving and unusual tale of a Holocaust survivor who, having fled and repressed his Jewish past for decades, now ironically struggles to prove to the religious authorities that he will belong in a Jewish cemetery. His initially snarky companion on a journey to his Hungarian hometown, a brash, young Turkish woman (Katharina Durr, excellent), becomes absorbed, as we do, in his life story and endeavors.

LITTLE WHITE LIE

Lacey Schwartz’s autobiographical documentary proves once again Tolstoy’s wisdom: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Schwartz’s heartache is certainly distinctive. Lacey’s parents lie or are in denial about her paternity, yet, as evidenced in home movies, provide her a loving home. Interviews with her extended family demonstrate unconditional affection. As Lacey confronts her parents, who bravely appear on camera, and as she adeptly and unreservedly recounts her difficulties discovering she is not white but biracial, she compels us to think hard about how we define ourselves and the dynamics of contemporary race relations in America.

MR. KAPLAN

Humiliation, desperation and self-righteousness are a dangerous brew, especially accompanied by incompetence, poor impulse control and an inability to swim. In this sharply observed, beautifully filmed Uruguayan comedy with a somber undertow, 76-year-old Jacob Kaplan (an excellent Héctor Noguera) is determined to make something of his meaningless life. Accompanied by his Sancho Panza, a humiliated, sloppy ex-cop with huge issues of his own, Kaplan’s self-styled Simon Wiesenthal-like efforts to capture a suspected Nazi criminal are hilarious, and even include a Spaghetti Western-styled showdown. Jacob may be a wreck, but the film is pitch-perfect.

NIGHT WILL FALL

Akin to the shocking power of Alain Resnais’s 1955 landmark documentary Night and Fog, the mesmerizing Night Will Fall will grip you as it relates Britain’s plan to produce a film to be shown in post-war Germany and worldwide. With input from Billy Wilder and supervised overall by Alfred Hitchcock, the disturbing graphic images of liberated death camps speak for themselves, yet the interviews with both soldiers who held the cameras, and some of the people they photographed and freed, add an essential dimension to this Holocaust history. Carefully crafted, with understated narration and fitting musical accompaniment, this is a resounding rejoinder to Holocaust deniers worldwide.

RAISE THE ROOF

Here’s an extraordinary venture: a multiyear, multinational endeavor to re-erect a grand wooden Polish synagogue that rivals “the greatest wooden architecture anywhere in the world,” including a vibrantly colored painted ceiling replete with animals and Hebrew texts. The engaging and thoughtful team leaders, Rick and Laura Brown, specialize in such educational reconstruction projects. They recruit experts in woodworking, painting, architecture and Polish-Jewish history to direct students and recreate a workshop employing medieval builders’ tools (not chainsaws). Best of all, this is a briskly paced detective tale to find out “not just how it was built, but who built it and why.” In doing so, the team recovered more than an object, they recovered a world.

SOFT VENGEANCE: ALBIE SACHS AND THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA

We’ve screened many inspiring documentaries about individuals who made a major difference in the world; this is one of the best, ever. Interviews, historical footage and steadfast narration by Alfre Woodard, bring to light the amazing story of Albie Sachs. This Jewish South African lawyer and member of the African National Congress remained committed to the cause of freedom while in exile abroad, and later helped write South Africa’s new constitution, designed its Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and served an inaugural term on its new Constitutional Court. Even after both a jail term and a devastating 1988 car-bombing, he truly embodies Gandhi’s ideal of non-violent protest and Nelson Mandela’s pursuit of reconciliation. Sachs’s commitment to justice, dignity and egalitarianism for all South Africans places him in the pantheon of democracy’s supreme champions and great Jewish jurists.

THEODORE BIKEL: IN THE SHOES OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM

In this adaptation of the one-man play, Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, 90-year-old singer, musician and actor Theodore Bikel affirms his connection to his greatest cultural inspiration, celebrated Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. Born in Vienna, and having fled Nazis in childhood, Bikel’s story is enhanced by artistes, including Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who describe Bikel’s civil rights activism and musical, theatrical and cinematic triumphs, including 2000 stage performances as Fiddler’s Tevye. The film’s heart, however, resides in its passionate, multifaceted tribute to vanishing Eastern European culture that Aleichem’s stories captured, and which enabled Eastern European Jews to survive 19th century poverty and persecution. This is an overwhelmingly rich celebration of Aleichem, Bikel and Jewish heritage.

ZERO MOTIVATION

Fans of black humor will savor this award-winning mix of Private Benjamin and M*A*S*H*, which satirizes the Israeli Defense Forces (and all military bureaucracies), and is one of this year’s best comedies. In a world where staple-gun-ownership epitomizes stature, the two anti-heroes, Zohar and Daffi, members of an all-female corps that trades foul-mouthed insults, scheme to avoid work as non-combat paper pushers on an IDF desert base. In this world of absurdist comic logic, disastrous actions have unpredictably happy consequences. First-time feature director Talya Lavie demonstrates a sure hand with droll staging and editing, and a highly ironic use of classical waltzes. To paraphrase from an Adam Sandler film, you don’t mess with this Zohar. For an even more outre Israeli comedy, see the surreal, inventive and quietly feminist Self Made.