The eighth annual Jewish Film Festival of St. Louis is a real grassroots affair, completely without pomp and circumstance. Instead, its organizers set out "to cinematically examine how Jews around the world struggle to preserve and regenerate Jewish life," according to their press materials. Here is the dish on some of this year's festival favorites.
After a few years spent hibernating after the backfire of his John Travolta-Dustin Hoffmann star vehicle Mad City, Academy Award-winning director Constantin Costa-Gavras has come roaring back to helm much more provocative material: Amen, a celluloid adaptation of Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 landmark play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy). The Deputy was the first theatrical work to confront the silence of the Vatican during the Holocaust. In its day, the play was picketed by Vatican supporters, and others lobbied to ban its North American debuts. Naturally, the controversy did not kill public interest; between 1963 and 1976, the published version of the play sold nearly a half-million copies.
In the movie version, Hochhuth's moral tale couples factual characters (SS Obersturmbannführer Kurt Gerstein) and fictional protagonists (Jesuit priest Riccardo Fontana, a dramatized composite of priests Maximilian Kolbe and Bernhard Lichtenberg from the play), who join forces to stop the extermination of Europe's Jewry. Veteran German actor Ulrich Tukur (Dr. Gibarian in the recent George Clooney flick Solaris) does the honors as Gerstein, and actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz (now directing Halle Berry in Gothika) carries the role of Fontana.
On equal footing is Henry Bean's provocative film The Believer. Bean's film raked in top honors at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards, but its distribution was temporarily derailed by its own controversial topic: a Jewish neo-Nazi. Ryan Gosling conjures up a frightening performance as Danny Balint, a far cry from this actor's days in the All New Mickey Mouse Club. A divisive film, The Believer has its high-profile supporters, including the Anti-Defamation League and culture commentator Stanley Crouch.
The festival also showcases the semiautobiographical film Soleil, by Roger Hanin. Hanin is a chart-topping nonfiction author, as well as the star of Navarro, a detective show in the same vein as Columbo that draws in about 10 million French viewers an episode. Soleil showcases Sophia Loren as a Jewish mother fending for her family under the collaborationist Vichy government in 1940s Algiers. Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas dubbed Soleil "Sophia Loren's best film in years." Marianne Sägebrecht (from art-house classics Baghdad Café and Rosalie Goes Shopping) and Philippe Noiret (of II Postino fame) pop up in supporting roles.
Rookie director Leib Cohen lightens the mood with his 21-minute short moral comic tale "Advice and Dissent," starring St. Louis-born John Pankow (remember Cousin Ira from Mad About You?). The film also features 87-year-old Eli Wallach and Rebecca Pidgeon (David Mamet's wife and cinematic muse). Cohen actually turned to Mamet and the Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary) to make this project about an unscrupulous husband who seeks rabbinical advice on bumping off his wife.