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Series/Festivals

Week of June 4, 2003

Jewish Film Festival of St. Louis:

Amen. Costa-Gavras. Costa-Gavras’ powerful new drama takes in the Nazi massacre of the Jews from the perspective of a most unusual protagonist: Kurt Gerstein (an excellent Ulrich Tukur), the chemist turned SS officer who developed the Zyklon B gas pellets originally intended for the purification of soldiers’ drinking water. Horrified when he discovers that the “parasites” his product was supposed to kill are actual people, this devout Christian tries to let the rest of the world know the truth, only to meet deaf ears. With the aid of a young Jesuit named Riccardo (Mathieu Kassovitz, in a role that’s a fictional composite of several real priests), he hopes to get the pope to issue a condemnation but hears only chilling excuses that could easily be tossed around by today’s self-proclaimed pundits, notably that Hitler was actually doing some good by fighting communism. Costa-Gavras wisely focuses the story on the suspenseful tale of his two leads — we know how the Holocaust will end, but only the most avid history student likely knows Gerstein’s ultimate fate. (Luke Y. Thompson)

The Believer. Henry Dean. In The Believer, writer/director Bean burrows into the neo-fascist group of Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) and Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane). But the whirlwind anchoring the narrative is 22-year-old Danny Balint, a steely-eyed, terrifying anti-Semite who insults Jews on New York subways and beats them on Queens streets. Surprisingly, Danny received his education in his local yeshiva, still reveres the Torah and is haunted by a Holocaust survivor's story of one particularly horrific murder. With notoriety, Danny pursues more dangerous action, committing to violence. But rather than offer titillating exploitation or superficial treatment of anti-Semitism, The Believer unmasks the hypocrisy and power plays endemic to hate groups. As Danny, Ryan Gosling performs with a ferocious intensity, a dynamic indictment of self-loathing. This confrontational film doesn't blink from the appalling hatred -- nor should it. Based loosely on Daniel Burrows' true story; after the New York Times exposed Burrows' upbringing, he killed himself. Screens at 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 9. (Diane Carson)

Soleil. Roger Hanin. Eschewing histrionics, Soleil explores the reach of Vichy prejudice to Algiers by way of the struggles of a close-knit family during World War II and into 1946. An unglamorous Sophia Loren is Titine, commanding matriarch of five children in this semiautobiographical story by writer/director Hanin, who appears in a minor role as a professor. His war years most closely parallel the experiences of favored thirteen-year old son Meyer, whose escapades, including selfish tantrums, dominate. With her husband (Philippe Noiret) safely working under an assumed name as a postal employee in Paris, Titine must fend for the family, selling prized possessions and scrimping to survive, indulging her children while denying herself. Location work, with Morocco substituting for Algiers, conveys a fresh and tactile immediacy, and a gracefully moving camera almost rescues some overacting and stagy exchanges. Loren uses her mature screen presence to elicit empathy for an otherwise dawdling series of vignettes. In French with English subtitles. Screens at 8 p.m. Monday, June 9. (Diane Carson)

Advice and Dissent and Shalom Y'all. This thoroughly entertaining program pairs an ironic moral fable with a remarkable documentary. "Advice and Dissent" (21 minutes) stars John Pankow as Jeffrey Goldman, so alienated from his wife, Ellen (Rebecca Pidgeon), that he seeks to end the agony of his marriage through a curse from the Rebbe (Eli Wallach). The unexpected consequences offer deep psychological truths to ponder long after the satisfying denouement. Throughout "Advice," writer/director Leib Cohen has an unerring knack for framing and pace. Next, running an hour, is the discursive but immensely engaging Shalom Y'all.As playful as its title, Shalomsurveys the seldom-recognized but substantial Jewish Dixie diaspora. From Galveston and New Orleans to Hot Springs and Natchez, Savannah and Atlanta, with well-chosen archival footage and photographs plus visits to the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience and the laureate of the Jewish South, Shalom Y'allis a revelation and a treat. Screens at 2 p.m. Tuesday, June 10. (Diane Carson)

Israel in a Time of Terror and Choosing Exile: In the Footprints of a Stranger. These two nonfiction films particularize dire situations by focusing on affected, ordinary people. In "Israel," calm, composed talk-show host Dennis Prager elicits candid answers from Jerusalem residents to an array of provocative questions. First providing context through news footage of the aftermath of suicide bombers, Prager then talks with Hadassah Hospital patients, mothers of victims and a cross-section of residents concerning their perceptions of Israel, morality and their own emotional state. Similarly, the Radomsky family represents one choice in response to contemporary South African violence. Originally from Lithuania, the Radomsky family's unnerving experiences and virtual imprisonment in their Johannesburg home prompted their choice to resettle in Sydney, Australia. Though separated by thousands of miles, the individuals in both anecdotal documentaries add specific human details and sad realities to headlines. Screens at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 10. (Diane Carson)

Next Time, Dear God, Please Choose Someone Else. Rex Bloomstein. The best documentaries combine substantive content and analytical insight in a surprising, enjoyable way. Next Time, Dear God does all this in its 90-minute tour of Jewish-American humor from footage of Eddie Cantor (1929), Smith and Dale (also 1929) and Fanny Brice (1935) to contemporary stand-ups. Smartly thematic rather than slavishly chronological in organization, the film features David Steinberg, Billy Crystal, Leo Rosten and others describing characteristic Jewish attitudes and feelings, including self-deprecating humor, irreverence, liberating lunacy (a 1940 Marx Brothers clip is the epitome), irony, paradox and ideas steeped in sentiment and sarcasm. Each concept is hilariously illustrated with examples delivered by way of the superb timing of Milton Berle, Alan King, Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason, plus a cross-section of Borscht Belt shtick. Producer/director Bloomstein quotes the Jewish saying "If you hurt, laugh" and provides sufficient comedy here to take away a world of pain. Screens at 1 & 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 11. (Diane Carson)

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