Week of June 4, 2003

Jun 4, 2003 at 4:00 am
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 thats 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 todays 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 Gersteins 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, Shalom surveys 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'all is 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)

Unfair Competition. Ettore Scola. Beginning in Rome in 1938, a carefully delineated rivalry between a Jewish tailor and a Catholic haberdasher evolves unexpectedly as increasingly punitive racial laws take their toll. Consequences range from the personal to the institutional: a clerk's arrogant insults, Jewish children barred from schools, radios confiscated, a Gentile maid forced to leave her Jewish employer, official indifference to vandalism, a young couple's romance ended and two boys' friendship disrupted. In a calm but deeply moving voice-over reminiscence, Catholic Pietruccio describes events with unsentimental precision, knowing that the microcosm of these two families mirrors larger Fascist struggles. One uncle, a minor role played by Gérard Depardieu (badly dubbed), challenges his relatives with the crucial truth: "Either we have the courage of our convictions or we don't." Italian director Scola uses lovely, layered compositions and marvelous sound to express the community's interdependence and to capture the strength of good people showing grace under pressure. In Italian with English subtitles. Screens at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 11. (Diane Carson)

Heroes: I Am 1 ... With Israel and First in Space: Ilan Ramon. The unifying theme of this program is that heroes, of diverse professions and personalities, rise to meet challenges and, as one observes, "still choose life." The Jewish Agency's brief (18 minutes), unabashedly admiring "Heroes" weaves together inspiring commentary by five Tel Aviv citizens, including an ambulance driver who speaks of holding his emotions in check, a woman wounded in a June 2001 disco bombing and a Defense Forces reservist. More restrained, "First in Space: Ilan Ramon" extensively documents the first Israeli chosen for a NASA flight. Footage of Ilan's family, of fellow astronauts on flight 107, of backup Israeli astronaut Itzhak Mayo,and of commentary by Ilan himself offers a fascinating picture of the demanding preparations for space flight and of many particulars during flight. The music lacks subtlety, but knowing of Columbia's re-entry breakup makes this a heartbreaking film. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, and 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12. (Diane Carson)

Epstein's Night. Urs Egger. Powerfully written and acted, beautifully composed and edited, Epstein's Night plunges close friends Adam, Karl and Jochen, all survivors of Birkenau, into a nightmarish confrontation with a sadistic SS officer -- or, more accurately, a modern-day priest whom Jochen Epstein believes to be that officer. Effectively integrating tender memories, especially of Adam's consuming but paralyzing love for Hannah Liebermann, with periodic flashbacks to traumatic betrayals in the camp, director Egger confirms, as Hannah says to Jochen, "Nobody's way to survival was easy." That Egger understates the depth of that pain makes it all the more heart-wrenching in this superb dramatization of the psychological and emotional torment that resonates for life. The seamless flow, the surprising but credible revelations and the dynamic probing of human nature make Epstein's Night a particularly poignant film. In German with English subtitles. Screens at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 12. (Diane Carson)

All films in the above series screen at Plaza Frontenac, beginning with the St. Louis premiere of Amen at 3:15 p.m. Sunday, June 8. For tickets and information, call 314-442-3299.

Made in the USA: The Story of East St. Louis. Documentary examines the rich history of East St. Louis and its growth, racial struggles and decline. Andrew Theising, a political-science professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville who is featured in the documentary, will introduce and discuss the documentary, which is scheduled for later broadcast on KETC-TV (Channel 9). The show is part of the Missouri History Museum's "Second Sunday Celebration" series. Screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 8, at the Missouri History Museum. NR

Midnights at the Tivoli. Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade, directed by Mamoru Oshii, has police and the military arrayed against subversives and terrorists in an animated alternative-history postwar Toyko. A secret policeman's unquestioning loyalty to the state is challenged. Also showing: Pretty in Pink, the 1986 film starring Brat Pack sweetie Molly Ringwald. Screens midnight Friday-Saturday, June 6-7, at the Tivoli. NR

Naqoyqatsi. Godfrey Reggio. Despite concentrated efforts, it's tough to make Godfrey Reggio's third and final Qatsi installment (after Koyaanisqatsi and Powaaqatsi) seem deep, but it is reasonably nifty-looking, if the least of the trilogy. Building on the theme that the modern world is modern, Reggio employs now-common video trickery to deliver decaying architecture, endless digital squiggles (à la Beyond the Mind's Eye) and plentiful stock shots of athletes grunting in slow motion. Presumably most people already know that the world is wired and stymied by aggression (the title, in Hopi, means "life as war"), so discerning audiences are left to chuckle and play what's-the-connection among cameos from Hitler, Bush Jr. and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. If you plug your ears against that damned Philip Glass doodle-doodle-doo music (here massively assisted by cellist Yo-Yo Ma), you may savor some moving moments (women talking with their hands, juxtaposed battalions, fleeing wild beasts). But still, the most alive I felt in this whole cold movie was when the guy behind me sneezed. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday, June 6-8, in Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 East Lockwood Avenue. (Gregory Weinkauf)

This Is Spinal Tap. Going on twenty years old -- and aging like a fine Gouda. Screens Wednesday, June 4 at Beatnik Bob's Café, on the third floor of the City Museum, 701 North 15th. NR