Stars of David

The Jewish Film Festival lights up St. Louis

8 p.m.: A Prime Minister's Schedule (Shahar Segal, Israel, 1999, 80 min.). This riveting, intense documentary chronicles the final two months of Yitzhak Rabin's life -- almost entirely through interviews with his family, friends and close political associates. We see face after face against a black backdrop, recalling in detail where Rabin went, what he did and whom he saw, all while confronting immense political pressure from every side of the peace issue. (Some of the most moving testimony comes from Rabin's driver, clearly totally enamored of his boss.) So many interviews are spliced together so rapidly that it becomes exhausting -- the film would have benefited from more images and news footage, if only to let us rest our attention for a moment. But intensity is part of the point, and it builds to quite a pitch: By the end, Rabin's assassination is as shocking and as painful as it was five years ago, when it happened. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Dan Bielski, a former Israeli-newspaper editor. (ML)

June 13

2 p.m.: "The Personals" (Keiko Ibi, U.S., 1998, 37 min.) and Lies My Father Told Me (Jan Kadar, Canada, 1975, 102 min.) "The Personals" records a group of 12 Jewish senior citizens taking part in an acting workshop at a New York community center as they create and perform a play about personal ads. By the time of the first performance, Ibi has followed them through personal crises and become a friend, provoking them to offer insightful and often disarmingly frank comments on the past, their ambitions, their health and their sexuality. The unpreviewed Lies My Father Told Me, directed by Czech refugee Kadar but set in Montreal's Jewish community of the 1920s, details the moving relationship between a 6-year-old and his Orthodox grandfather. (RH)

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.

5:30 p.m.: Yana's Friends (Eric Kaplun, Israel, 1998, 90 min.). Russians Yana and her husband have just immigrated to Israel, where they settle into an apartment with a sex-obsessed (or maybe just male) filmmaker. Before you can say nyet, Yana's husband abandons her, with debt and a pregnancy in its third month. Then she must fend for herself, among odd neighbors, a new language and the air raids of the Gulf War. This quirky, often absurd Israeli comedy is pretty lovable: It's got a dachshund, lots of greasy hair, a very sexy person (the filmmaker) and a really compelling protagonist. Yana is richly drawn: She brings complex emotions to every difficult decision she must make. And, in what seems to be becoming a comedic trope in Israeli film, the ironization of the Gulf War is delightful, too. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (ML)

8 p.m.: After the End of the World (Ivan Nichev, Germany/Bulgaria/Greece, 1999, 108 min.). After nearly a half-century in Israel, Professor Alberto Cohen returns to his native Bulgaria to give a lecture at a local monastery, where as a boy he was blamed for Jesus' death. That accusation turns out to have been the beginning of a heap of troubles, as the communist promise turned violent and Armenians, Jews and Gypsies were driven out of Bulgaria. The film shifts from present to past, as Alberto reconnects with his old flame and they remember, together and apart, their lives as children. It sounds good, doesn't it? And it is -- it's elegant and patient and meaningful -- until about halfway through, when it loses momentum and nearly grinds to a halt. Is the film really only 108 minutes? The constant flashbacks end up sapping the present of its power -- just when a scene is getting good and messy (including the film's only sex scene!), the focus shifts. By the end, I was feeling more than ready to move on. In Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish with English subtitles. Postfilm discussion with Dr. Sylvia Ginsparg. (ML)

June 14

2 p.m.: Jew-Boy Levi (Didi Danquart, Germany, 1999, 94 min.). Set in a small town in the Black Forest in 1935, Jew-Boy Levi, based on a play by Thomas Strittmatter, finds a new, understated way to re-create the often-told story of Nazi Germany. There are none of the usual scenes of riots, rallies or breaking glass in this bucolic tragicomedy, but the gradual triumph of wickedness is subtle and chilling. The Nazi influence comes in the form of railway engineers from Berlin who slowly and almost unconsciously use violence and terror to bring the once-peaceful village under their control. No heavy-handed thugs or ideologues, these villains are casually amoral and tipsy with power. They're led, fittingly, by an amateur magician whose greatest trick is to turn the entire community -- middle class, poor, right, left -- against each other, leaving the title character, a gentle lovestruck cattle dealer, stuck helplessly in the middle. Well acted and beautifully photographed, Jew-Boy Levi looks at the moral damage wreaked by fascism from a surprisingly fresh perspective. In German with English subtitles. (RH)

5:30 p.m.: Women. (Rami Na'aman, Israel, 1994, 95 min.). This film opens with a happy event -- a marriage -- but it's pretty much downhill from there. In a Sephardic community in turn-of-the-century Jerusalem, lovely Rachel marries the pious and respected rabbi. But 14 years later, they're still without children, and Rachel is oppressed. Her husband is patient and pious -- "Did Abraham leave Sarah?" -- but Rachel takes matters into her own hands, insisting that her husband take another, younger wife. Brilliant, huh? And that's the problem with this film: We can see it all coming. Even though we sympathize with Rachel's pain, it's hard to stand behind her when she concocts this terribly misconstrued plan. So where does that leave us? With her blaming mother-in-law? ("Satan knocked on the door, and we welcomed him in.") Some of the shots are lovely, but the movie is generally maudlin and monotonous -- literally, the same flute motif is repeated in nearly every scene. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (ML)

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