Keeping the Faith

U Film Society's Jewish Film Festival delivers a celluloid shalom for the age of kabala chic

Jewish Soul, American Beat
Devoted to exploring "the growing numbers of young people who are returning to Judaism," this hour-long documentary is more novel in its political legerdemain than its formal presentation. The crisis at the center of Barbara Pfeffer's video is the high intermarriage rate among American Jews. Up to half, research has shown, marry gentiles, endangering the future of the faith. Pfeffer and her assemblage of talking heads lay off the scare-mongering for the most part; she takes the defection of some Jews as a given and leaves out their stories. Though that choice makes some thematic sense--this is the tacit introduction to the story--the same approach proves less intellectually honest when it comes to the burgeoning ultraorthodox movement. American Judaism is in less peril than many critics would have it, as a baby boom in Hasid communities grows the population there exponentially. This is, no doubt about it, the most vital strain of contemporary Judaism (interested readers are directed to Robert Eisenberg's travelogue Boychicks in the Hood, which is far better than its title would suggest). Yet the fact that these Jews are effectively fundamentalists with tenuous ties to secular America is not an attractive fact for Pfeffer--and so she mostly ignores them. Three recent converts do talk about the vibrancy of the ultraorthodox movement, but their screen appearances are fleeting; the director yields more time to a feminist Seder, an activity of debatable import. To this doc's credit, it devotes ample screen time to those who cast doubt on the nature of this "Jewish renewal"--which, as shown here, seems to consist of a lot of melismatic music. Musician Steve Reich advocates for Torah scholarship as the only avenue for a Jewish renaissance ("the idea that eating bagels together is going to keep Jews together is ridiculous foolishness," he says pointedly), and author Cynthia Ozick repeats the call for study. (Other celebrity commentators include writer Anne Roiphe, playwright Tony Kushner, and saxophonist John Zorn.) If nothing else, Pfeffer's willingness to engage in these debates--or occasional willingness, at least--represents the best of the Jewish tradition. (Michael Tortorello) Wednesday, November 25 at 8:15 and 9:20 p.m.

Roger Kamenetz's: The Jew in the Lotus
Roger Kamenetz's: The Jew in the Lotus

Freud Leaving Home
The joke in the title of this Swedish comedy isn't a reference to its female protagonist's amusing journey of sexual discovery, but a play on the psycho-emotional unraveling that besets a dysfunctional Jewish family when its mythically anal, clinically oppressive mother falls deathly ill and is sent away for treatment. A more instructive title, however, might be The Diaspora and Its Discontents,as the film focuses on the geographically and ethically far-flung Cohen family's battle with the trials of tradition and morality. Rosha Cohen (Ghita Norby) is a 60-year-old Holocaust survivor who has never come to terms with the pain implicit in her heritage. Her gay, nonpracticing son David (Phillip Zandén) lives in Florida and pays the rent by playing Mickey Mouse at Disney World, while her daughter Deborah (Jessica Zandén) unhappily lives the orthodox life in Israel with her husband Abraham. Sandwiched between them is the areligious Freud (Gunilla Röör), a bookish beauty whose inability to handle her mother's impending death compels her to shack up with the first seamy-looking guy she sees--an older man who ends up giving her the love her hypercritical mother never could. Her comically awkward sexual follies lighten the film's burdensome subject matter, but, sadly, its unfunny, psychoanalytical humor ("Why did Moses cross the Red Sea? Because he was embarrassed to be seen with his family.") doesn't. (Jon Dolan) Friday, November 27 through Sunday, November 29 at 7:15 p.m.

Rothschild's Violin
Even though its characters think aloud about "the image of the Jew accepting his role as a victim," Edgardo Cozarinsky's quietly moving and lyrically chilling Russian film-opera is anything but dry and academic. What begins as a fictionalized account of Dmitri Shostakovich struggling to find ways of performing an adaptation of Chekhov's Rothschild's Fiddle by one of his Jewish students killed in the war becomes something much more: a meditation on musical memory in WWII Russia that takes the music seriously enough to devote a quarter of its running time to a fantasy performance of "the Jewish opera" itself. The film is polemical and gorgeous at once. We're told that when Shostakovich performs the piece in 1968 it gets branded "Zionist propaganda," and then we're left visually adrift, our eyes glued to a young boy playing a blue violin on a Leningrad street corner in total silence. (Kun) Saturday, November 28 at 5 p.m., Sunday, November 29 at 3 p.m.

The Milky Way
Sometimes fools become the wisest people, and so it is during the last year of military rule in a small Arab village, where a simpleton named Mabruq (Suheil Haddad) comes to see through the power struggles that surround him. Set in 1964, some 16 years after the Israeli war, Ali Nassar's second feature is an attempt to reconcile the physical and cultural carnage of the past with the promise of "the Milky Way"--literally a path carved by carts during harvest and, more important, the true route to hope, security, and prosperity. Like many villagers, Mabruq loses sight of the Milky Way as he suffers the daily indignities wrought by the Mukhtar (Makram Khoury), a fearful leader who serves the military governor before the needs of his own people. Mabruq tries in vain to hold everyone together, including his beloved friend Mahmmud (Muhammad Bakri), a blacksmith who represents morality in an otherwise corrupt environment. By centering his story around the childlike Mabruq, Nassar sends a message of conciliation that's all the more poignant for how injustice tends to be inflicted upon those most vulnerable. Ultimately, the film channels its anger toward the heart, turning politics into visual poetry and, in turn, a subtle strength. (Caroline Palmer) Tuesday, December 1 through Thursday, December 3 at 8:30 p.m.

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