Stars of David

The Jewish Film Festival lights up St. Louis

The fifth annual Jewish Film Festival runs June 11-15 at the AMC Creve Coeur 12 Theatre, 10465 Olive Blvd. (An opening-night party is held at 6 p.m. June 11 at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 2 Millstone Campus Dr.; cost is $40.) Tickets for films (except opening night) are $6.50 in advance and $7.50 at the door; cost for the opening-night film is $10. For tickets or more information, call the Jewish Community Center at 432-5700, ext. 3299. Films are in English unless otherwise noted.

Capsule reviews are written by Diane Carson, Cliff Froehlich, Robert Hunt, Melissa Levine and Robert Wilonsky.

June 11

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the touching, trenchant documentary that opens the fest at 8 p.m. June 11
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the touching, trenchant documentary that opens the fest at 8 p.m. June 11
Yana's Friends, a quirky, often absurd Israeli comedy, plays at 5:30 p.m. June 13.
Yana's Friends, a quirky, often absurd Israeli comedy, plays at 5:30 p.m. June 13.

6 p.m.: Premiere Party. A summer picnic of ballpark food and treats precedes the screening of the opening film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which also features a 7:30 p.m. discussion with panelists Howard Balzer, Bob Broeg and Ken Holtzman. A ticket for the event -- including food, panel, film and ticket for one additional screening -- is $40. The party is held at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building; the panel and film are held at the Creve Coeur 12 Theatre.

8 p.m.: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Aviva Kempner, U.S., 1998, 90 min.). Sixty-two years ago, a Detroit Tigers ballplayer by the name of Henry Benjamin Greenberg came within three homers of breaking Babe Ruth's then-record of 60 homers in a season. And, yes, his chase of history was also the stuff of which hoopla and hype were made. But Greenberg's home-run chase was not celebrated by all those who kept close watch. There were plenty of baseball fans who did not want Greenberg to catch Ruth, to surpass the legend. A Jew had no business owning such an American record. Greenberg, to his credit, never believed that, despite playing ball in one of the most anti-Semitic cities in America, one run by the hateful Henry Ford. Perhaps Greenberg wouldn't allow himself to believe it. His roles as baseball great and Jewish hero were never separated; he was forever known as the first Jew in the major leagues, even though other Jews came before him and played under goyish names. He was, as filmmaker Kempner often reminds us in her touching, trenchant documentary, the Jackie Robinson of the Jews -- the man who withstood hatred on his way to becoming one of the game's best first basemen and power hitters. (The big difference was that after games Greenberg could go wherever he wanted; Robinson, living in a whites-only world, could not.) Greenberg wore his Jewishness on his sleeve; he never hid from his Romanian background or pretended to be a gentile to disappear into the crowd. And Kempner, who grew up in Detroit after Greenberg's heyday (he played there from 1934-46) and spent more than a decade on this film, makes no attempt to separate the Jew from the Tiger. To her, one thing defined the other -- the American League MVP who didn't play on Yom Kippur, the target for anti-Semites who threw pork chops at him, the "Moses ... the messiah" who proudly led Jews into the promised land of baseball. This film is precisely what a documentary ought to be: engaging and revelatory, turning forgotten footnotes and discarded minutiae into the stuff of riveting drama and poignant laughs. (RW)

June 12

2 p.m.: Autumn Sun (Eduardo Mignogna, Spain, 1996, 103 min.). In this November-December romance, fiftysomething accountant Clara Goldstein advertises in the personals and turns up Raoul Ferraro, a sixtysomething Italian who pretends to be Jewish to be eligible to date her. But Clara susses him out. Instead of dating him, she recruits him to pretend to be her boyfriend -- her brother is coming to visit, and she wants him to think that she's happy in love. Thus ensues a gently humorous (if sometimes agonizingly slow) comedy in which Clara tries to show Raoul how to appear Jewish. In the meantime, they fall in love. The film is dulled by both its pace and its nearly uninterrupted sepia tones (autumn indeed), and it creates a silly conflict at the end, but parts of it are lovely. If nothing else, a love story between two middle-aged-to-older people is heartwarming to see on the big screen. In Spanish with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Robert A. Cohn, editor of the Jewish Light. (ML)

5:30 p.m.: The Giraffe (Dani Levy, Germany, 1999, 107 min.). Though confusing plot machinations often distract from its enticing personal and political underpinnings, The Giraffe maneuvers with sufficient conviction to keep implausible events intriguing. New York Daily News coverage of the arson destruction of a German factory launches an investigation by a Holocaust survivor who recognizes her father, thought killed by the Nazis, in a photograph. Soon two women claim the same identity, the son (Dani Levy) of one and the daughter (co-writer Maria Schrader) of the other cooperate after a mysterious murder, a Jewish Defense lawyer (David Strathairn) interferes, a matchmaker intrudes and conflict builds. Purposefully abrupt edits and disjointed events keep us off-balance, and a consistent noir atmosphere conveys a sinister world of psychological turmoil. Although surrendering to some stereotypes, The Giraffe boldly risks a tangled web of events to explore shifting identities and troubled German-Jewish relationships. In German and English with English subtitles. (DC)

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