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Festival of Light

Fourth annual Jewish Film Festival

June 15
2 p.m.: Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note (Susan Lacy, U.S., 1998, 117 min.). Leonard Bernstein towered over the music world for a good portion of this century, a composer, conductor, performer, TV host, popularizer and all-around celebrity who shaped much of the contemporary repertoire and taught millions of TV viewers and concertgoers that Mahler and Beethoven could be just as accessible as Duke Ellington and the Beatles. Lacy's straightforward talking-heads-and-clips documentary, originally shown as part of the PBS's American Masters series, offers nearly two hours of excerpts from Bernstein's wide-ranging careers -- from his overnight success as a 24-year-old conductor through Broadway landmarks like On the Town and West Side Story to his 11-year reign over the New York Philharmonic -- and leaves the viewer hungry for more. (Rarely camera-shy, Bernstein left a considerable archive for the documentarian, from TV concerts and rehearsals to home movies.) Though the film emphasizes Bernstein's creative life over his biography, Lacy still finds time to approach the composer's troubled family life, his sexuality, the Jewish traditions that inspired much of his symphonic work, and his influence on other musicians. The Bernstein who emerges from the film is a vibrant, potent force in American music, even nine years after his death, a conductor who made every sweep of the baton an emotional statement, a music enthusiast who approached every measure -- whether from a Beach Boys song, a Louis Armstrong solo or a Bach cantata -- with awe. (RH)

5:30 p.m.: The Quarrel (Eli Cohen, Canada, 1992, 88 min.). A philosophical disquisition on the existence of God, the role of faith and the nature of man -- couched as a rambling argument between two former friends, a pair of European Jewish survivors who meet unexpectedly in a Montreal park in the late '40s -- would seem unpromising material for a film. The Quarrel, however, never becomes the static exercise in gloomy tedium that its precis threatens: The abstract concepts are discussed in vividly concrete terms -- fond and horrific memories recalled, wrenchingly emotional stories shared -- and the actors, Saul Rubinek as a implacably devout Hasidic rabbi and R.H. Thomson as a troubled secular-humanist writer, bring vibrant passion and animating rage to their roles. continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageAdapting a short story by Chaim Grade (and subsequent play), screenwriter David Brandes and director Cohen refuse to tip the movie's scales in favor of one man over the other -- both reveal themselves as judgmental but compassionate, intellectually stubborn but emotionally flexible, deeply flawed but legitimately heroic, and neither coaxes his opponent to leap across the religious divide. But if we're rightly denied a resolution to the intractable, eternal problems the two debate, their tentative embrace above the abyss that separates them provides a tender and moving reconciliation. Followed by a discussion with Rabbi Ephraim Zimand. (CF)

8 p.m.: Let There Be Light (Que la Lumiere Soit) (Arthur Joffe, France, 1997, 98 min.). A gentle fable that imagines God entering the modern age by switching media -- abandoning the Bible's printed page to become a screenwriter -- Let There Be Light offers some mild chuckles and warm fuzzies, but it's overly precious. Only nominally concerned with metaphysical questions, the movie is far more interested in filmic matters and casts the devil (Tchecky Karyo) as the rewrite-demanding producer of God's screenplay. This potentially clever bit of business, however, never amounts to much: The wrangling over the film's integrity are mild tussles instead of pitched battles, and any conflict is further diffused by interposing the director (an admittedly charming Helene de Fourgerolles) between the devil and God (who is played by a succession of deity-possessed actors and animals, all of whom have an identifying eye twitch). Even more disappointing, when the film is finally shot and shown -- in Notre Dame, of course -- Joffe shows us a rapt congregation/audience utterly transported by a never-seen movie that reflects each member's individual dreams. This is a fundamental flaw in Let There Be Light's thesis: Although one of cinema's many pleasures undoubtedly is seeing our own experience portrayed onscreen, the reason film holds such attractive power is its transcendent nature: It allows us to escape our own circumstances and live vicariously through stories and stars. Let There Be Light, although set partially in heaven, remains dismayingly earthbound in its imagination. In French with English subtitles. (CF)

June 16
2 p.m.: Greenfields (Greene Felder) (Edgar G. Ulmer and Jacob Ben-Ami, U.S., 1937, 95 min.). Produced independently by a short-lived collective of Jewish entrepreneurs and theater devotees, the 1937 Green Fields is an adaptation of one of the most popular Yiddish plays of the time, Peretz Hirshbein's comedy of two rival peasant families battling for the attention of a young Talmudic scholar (Michael Goldstein). The characters may strike contemporary audiences as stereotypical, and Goldstein's idea of studiousness consists of rocking back and forth like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, but the film has a cocky charm, more than likely due less to the contributions of co-director Ben-Ami, a leading figure in Yiddish theater, than to Ulmer, the director of such accomplished B-movies as Detour, who knew how to make the most of a tight budget: Despite the stock characters and theatrical performances, you might not guess that the Eastern European scenery is actually New Jersey farmland. In Yiddish with English subtitles. (RH)

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