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Festival of Light

Fourth annual Jewish Film Festival

The fourth annual Jewish Film Festival plays June 13-16 at the West Port Cine, Page & I-270, and June 17 at the Jewish Community Center (JCC)'s Ida Pasternak Auditorium, 2 Millstone Campus Dr. Tickets for the opening and closing films are $10; admission for all other shows is $6 in advance or $7 at the door.

The fest kicks off on June 13 with a 7 p.m. screening of Joan Micklin Silver's A Fish in the Bathtub at the West Port, followed by a 8:45 p.m. premiere party featuring a dessert reception for special guest Ray Silver, the film's producer and co-writer, in the lobby of the Westport Playhouse. Tickets for the party, including the screening and a ticket to an additional film, are $36 and must be ordered in advance; call 432-5700, ext. 3175. Concluding the festival is a presentation at the JCC of the silent classic The Golem with live accompaniment by the extraordinary guitarist Gary Lucas (see next week's RFT for an interview with Lucas).

For tickets and information, call 432-5700, ext. 3299.

Capsule reviews are by Diane Carson, Cliff Froehlich, Robert Hunt, Chris King, Melissa Levine and Eddie Silva.

June 13
7 p.m.: A Fish in the Bathtub (Joan Micklin Silver, U.S., 1998, 96 min.). In this, the most recent film by director Silver, who is receiving a mini-retrospective of three films at the festival, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara play a long-wedded couple for whom the institution of marriage is a war zone. They're the Bickersons in a contemporary setting, with the underlying distrust between an Irish Catholic wife and a Jewish husband added to extend a shtick Stiller and Meara have been practicing for decades. Hubbie is depressed and becomes more insufferable than usual; long-suffering wife reaches the point of can't-take-it-anymore. She leaves, sending ripples of anxiety through their community of friends and family. A meager subplot involving the couple's son (Mark Ruffalo) and his temptation with marital infidelity only serves to increase the predictability of the story. Everyone gets back together as the binds of love prove their resiliency. So what do you expect from romantic comedy? Surprise. Ingenuity. Imagination. Not here -- even the intriguing title is explained a few minutes after the credits. A pretty good Jewish American Princess joke is the one memorable moment. Followed by a discussion with producer/co-writer Ray Silver. (ES)

June 14
2 p.m.: Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver, U.S., 1975, 91 min.). Hester Street received considerable notice when it was first released nearly 25 years ago. Director Silver's lovingly detailed exploration of the tension arising between an assimilated Russian Jewish husband (the late Steven Keats) and his fresh-off-the-boat Orthodox wife (Carol Kane) in New York City during the peak of European immigration was unique in regard to its depiction of divorce and its use of Yiddish with English subtitles. In retrospect, Hester Street is formulaic, with many of the characters conforming to stereotypes. Keats is such an unappealing bully that it's unclear as to why anybody would befriend or marry him. Kane remains the real find here. She's luminous. (ES)

5:30 p.m.: Crossing Delancey (Joan Micklin Silver, U.S., 1988, 97 min.). Amy Irving plays Isabelle (or Izzy) Grossman, the manager of a literary bookstore in Manhattan. This is the idyllic fantasy of a bookstore, where nobody really works and booksellers have a shot at romantic entanglements with prominent authors. Izzy has the hots for novelist Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbe in his typical cad role), who either treats her like a coffee table or a fetching muse. When Izzy isn't mooning over Anton, she has casual sexual liaisons with a next-door neighbor (that is, if his wife is out of town). Izzy is the modern independent woman of the post-feminist world, except when she takes the subway downtown to visit her grandmother "Bubbe" (Reizl Bozyk), who sees through her granddaughter's prideful self-reliance and knows that what she really needs is a man -- a good kosher man at that. A matchmaker is hired (Sylvia Miles as a woman who eats everything in sight) and lines up Sam (Peter Riegert), a pickle vendor who happens to be handsome, charming, sensitive -- a mensch-and-a-half. What's a girl to do? All the wrong things, of course, until she finds her way to true love. Riegert is especially appealing, and Irving goes from tired professional to stunning beauty as the film progresses. Crossing Delancey is a quaint fable about identity and tradition that needn't be considered too thoughtfully before it grows irksome. Followed by a discussion with St. Louis Jewish Light editor Robert A. Cohn. (ES)

8 p.m.: The Nasty Girl (Michael Verhoeven, Germany, 1990, 92 min.). The struggle with a national consciousness that has repressed or willfully forgotten its own history has been a frequent theme for German writers and filmmakers of the last two decades. The Nasty Girl -- based on the experiences of writer Anja Elisabeth Rosmus, whose books on her hometown of Passau made her both a celebrity and a target -- illustrates the painful results of this historical blindness but treats it as comedy rather than tragedy. In Verhoeven's retelling, Sonja Wegmus (played with considerable charm by Lena Stolze) turns a schoolgirl's curiosity into an adult obsession with uncovering her town's anti-Semitic past. Eventually, the quest becomes more personal than political, and the information Sonja seeks remains a vague and almost trivial detail. The film is lively and filled with genuinely comical moments, but that's exactly what's wrong with it: The story is told through sight gags, broad caricatures and puns, all of which reduce the film's dramatic efforts to the simplicity of watching an admirable heroine outwit a lot of unpleasant cartoons. The Nasty Girl may flirt with tricky issues, but it remains safely in the realm of sentimentality and sitcom. In German with English subtitles. Followed by a discussion with Dr. Sylvia Ginsparg. (RH)

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)

5:30 p.m.: The Flying Camel (Rami Na'aman, Israel, 1994, 95 min.) A screwy comedy about the begrudging friendship between an aging Israeli professor and a down-at-heels Arab engineer, The Flying Camel manages to be charming and winning without too much fuss. Professor Bauman is a widowed junk collector and architecture scholar who lives in relative squalor among his treasured things. After a brief trip to the hospital, he returns home to find Phares, an Arab trash collector, squatting in his bungalow. Before long, they've discovered how they might be of use to one another; a scheme to reconstruct a sculpture of a flying camel keeps them together. (A Greek tragedy this isn't.) Meanwhile, an Italian nun parks her van in the yard, joining the cause, and three major world religions are reconciled -- at least for now. The production values are shaky and an emotional center all but absent, but that's not really the point. Go, watch, enjoy. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (ML)

8 p.m.: A Letter without Words (Lisa Lewenz, U.S., 1998, 60 min.). A Letter without Words is a unique gem. In 1981, Lewenz discovered a box of films that her grandmother Ella Arnhold Lewenz had made, starting as a young Jew in Germany, entering the color-film era in 1929 and continuing through the rise of Hitler and a flight to New York City after Kristalnacht. Later she discovered her grandmother's diary as well and engaged a German lip-reader to help her subtitle the silent footage. Ella's home movies reveal an excellent independent filmmaker living through extraordinary times. Besides the German Jewish experience in the Nazi era, rendered with unprecedented subtlety and texture, her camera shows us Albert Einstein, seen as a family friend. (He was, we are pleased to learn, "a really sweet guy.") Lewenz's voice-over narrative is hampered by trite similes, but her patience with and love for her grandmother and art have given us a warm and revealing film. Followed by a discussion with Lewenz. (CK)

June 17
2 p.m.: Common Courage (Bob Gill, U.S., 1998, 80 min.) and "Dissolution and Resettlement" (Judith Doneson, U.S., 1987, 30 min.). There's nothing quite like Holocaust testimony -- harrowing, deeply unsettling and even unhinging, narrating a kind of horror for which we are often told there are no words. It's always hard to take; it's hard to open ourselves wide enough, and steadily enough, to become proper vessels for testimony of this kind. And yet, in Common Courage as elsewhere, Holocaust testimony can be miraculous -- they lived, after all; these people who tell their tales survived. Cataloguing the stories of four St. Louis survivors, Common Courage is a simple but deeply affecting film marred only by the unfortunate use of intermittent music, which occasionally plays behind the survivors' voices. Gill has selected two women and two men with discrete experiences -- one from Germany, two from Poland and one from Vienna; one who escaped to England, one who went to Auschwitz, one who hid in an underground bunker and another who fled to Italy and became part of the resistance. The result is an eloquent portrait of prolonged, intense suffering and ultimate survival. "Dissolution and Resettlement," part of a larger series about Jewish history, is a short documentary about Jewish refugees in the postwar period. The writing is not particularly eloquent, nor the composition artful, but the information's good: Who knew that 18,000 Jews went to Shanghai during World War II? Or that 50,000 Yemenite Jews were flown to Palestine (later Israel) in Operation Magic Carpet? After the horror of Common Courage, footage of the Israeli flag flying over the new state is a welcome sight. Followed by a discussion with Gill and Doneson. (ML)

5:30 p.m.: Delta Jews (Mike DeWitt, U.S., 1998, 57 min.). According to one witness, the story of Jews in the Mississippi Delta is "the story of fathers who built businesses for sons who didn't want them." At one time, 1,500 Jews lived in the Delta; fewer than 300 remain. Still, it may come as a surprise that there were ever any Jews in the Delta, and their stories (not to mention the way they tell them, with Southern accents thick as sludge) are fascinating. This documentary, slowly and simply rendered, traces the history of Jews in "the South's South" -- from arrival from Eastern Europe, to the establishment of Jewish farms and businesses, through the volatile civil-rights era, and up to the present-day exodus from rural South to urban North. Perhaps the saddest consequence of the dwindling presence of Jews in the South is the contemporary tension between Jews and blacks. According to one witness, the two communities used to be somewhat closely allied. Followed by a panel discussion featuring former Southerners Dr. Albert Barton, Rita Hirson, Claire Jacobs and Esther Lyss-Greenstein. (ML)

8 p.m.: The Golem (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. Germany, 1920, 90 min.). The golden age of German cinema, post-World War I through the 1920s, produced landmark works immensely influenced by expressionism and the theater of Max Reinhardt. Stylistically characterized by exaggerated acting, deliberately distorted sets, high-contrast lighting, shadow effects and nightmarish themes of psychological tyranny teetering on the verge of chaos (think of 1919's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), these films communicate distrust of power and fear of persecution. Wegener and Boese's remake of The Golem (first filmed in 1914) follows the Jewish legend of a clay figure that Rabbi Loew brings to life as a defense against a 16th-century pogrom in medieval Prague. Serving as co-writer, co-director and lead actor, Wegener breathes a humanity into the Golem, who falls in love with Loew's daughter. Used to save the ghetto after the Hapsburg emperor threatens expulsion of the Jews, the Golem moves toward his own betrayal. Though Wegener denied that he intended to make an expressionist film, The Golem shares many such characteristics while forging its own haunting appeal, including striking crowd scenes. The Golem, a silent film, plays with live accompaniment by guitarist Gary Lucas; for more information on Lucas, see next week's

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