Category Archives: Boston Jewish Film Festival

“SUBTE: POLSKA”— A Character Study

“Subte:Polska”

A Character Study

Amos Lassen

“Subte: Polska” looks at the final chapter in the life of a 90-year old Argentine chess player who longs to recapture his past. He spends his days riding the subway lines of Buenos Aires that he helped to build as a young man and as he does, he faces his past.

As a young man, Tadeusz (Héctor Bidonde) left his entire family and the girl he loved behind in Poland in order to fight for the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. When the war was lost and the rise of fascism made it unsafe for a Jewish communist to return to Europe so he immigrated to Buenos Aires where he helped build the subway tunnels beneath the city. Now nearing the end of his life, he finds himself lost in reverie and desperate to recapture his mental abilities and sexual libido. He has refused the doctor’s pills because he believes that they are responsible for his losing his lucidity and manhood. Since he believes that his next journey will likely be his last, he tries to reconnect with long-lost lovers from his youth and has help to do so from an eccentric circle of caring friends and neighbors.

Alejandro Magnone wrote this humorous character study of a quixotic life that comes full circle in its last chapter. With these memories there are moments of nostalgic lucidity in which Tadeusz reminisces about his role in the Spanish Civil War and the loves he has lost.

Much of the movie is about Tadeusz’s quest to recover his sexual prowess and his obsession with acquiring a penis pump— he thinks he will feel better if he has an erection. He also has something to say about doctors who would rather see him medicated. We see flashbacks to Tadeusz’s adolescent guerrilla days in which Bidonde gives us a character that is both captivating and endearing.

Buenos Aires here seems to be inhabited exclusively by people who are most interested in the life of Tadeusz and more than willing to involve themselves to it.

“THE 90 MINUTE WAR”— Settling Differences Satrically

“The 90 Minute War” (“Milhemet 90 Hadakot”)

Settling Differences

Amos Lassen

Let’s face it—the Middle East is a power keg. For decades there have been failed peace talks and now with the threat of renewed hostilities looming, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree to end the crisis once and for all by a winner-take-all soccer match. One game will decide who will remain in the Holy Land and who must go. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the chairman of the Israeli Football Association (Moshe Ivgy) and his Palestinian counterpart (Norman Issa). Every detail of the game becomes a potentially deal-breaking negotiation beginning with the choice of venue to the selection of an impartial referee. As the day of the match draws closer, both men struggle with ambivalence about their place on the world stage while at the same time each pursues every advantage to ensure victory.

In case you have not yet realized it, this film is a politically incorrect mockumentary that reveals the sometimes petty and ridiculous nature of the differences that divide the Middle East.

For a satire to work, it must be based on reality and attack its targets from there. In this case, Eyal Halfon’s “The 90 Minute War” fails. It is based on an existing reality but the film’s basic premise is so far-fetched that the film cannot possibly succeed as a skillful satire. However, this does not mean it is not a good movie. The film completely ignores the question of how the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority came up with such a solution. It seems that director Halfon apparently wanted to push the current desperate impasse to the point of absurdity and he does so without creditability.

The two men charged with organizing the game are unable to settle on a single detail without a negotiation that nearly blows the whole plan to pieces. Eventually they agree to hold the match in Portugal, since that country seems indifferent to the conflict. But then they start squabbling about who will be the referees; and so on.

Because this is an Israeli movie, it pays more attention to deliberations on the Israeli side than on the Palestinian one. I see this as thoughtlessness, irresponsibility and lack of commitment. Halfon has situated the story inside a “mockumentary” and the inevitable conclusion is that this is a film based on a mistake, causing every direction it takes to come out wrong as well. Nonetheless, the film is funny and the actors do fine jobs. It all just could have been so much better.

“PINSKY”— A Complicated Relationship

“Pinsky”

A Complicated Relationship

Amos Lassen

“Pinsky” focuses on a 26-year-old queer woman who is an aspiring stand up comic with a complicated relationship with her Jewish grandmother. Sophia Pinsky seems to be an adult with an adult life. She has a job, an apartment and a partner. But then, her grandfather died suddenly and her girlfriend left her. Marina, Sophia, Russian grandmother uses Sophia’s guilt and insecurities as a way to get her to move back home and live with the family. She begins trying to get her to marry a nice Jewish guy named Trevor but Sophia wants nothing to do with men and after a terrible date with him, Sophia goes to a comedy club where, with all of her personal problems, people find her to be quite funny and laugh at her jokes. She makes new friends with some of the club patrons and they all have the feeling of being outsiders everywhere but at the club.

Sophia’s relationship with her family comes to an explosion one Shabbat dinner and she now relies on her new family to be there for her as she learns to accept herself. At that same dinner, Sophia and Trevor try to humiliate Marina by pretending to have fallen for each other, not knowing that Marina has her own announcement— she is already dating her childhood rabbi and this puts Sophia and Maria at odds in attempting to define loyalty and love.

Rebecca Karpovsky and Amanda Lindquist are the brains behind this film and it is through them that we see and understand that family relationships are usually quite complicated. The film is not a criticism of the se relationships but rather a look at how complicated they can be.

“BIG SONIA”— A Diva

“Big Sonia”

A Diva

Amos Lassen

Sonia Warshawski who is over ninety-years-old is a Holocaust survivor and a diva that has just been served an eviction notice for her popular tailor shop in suburban Kansas City. Sonia’s trauma comes to the surface as she struggles with the concept of retirement. Sonia loves red lipsticks and clothing with animal prints and she is a vibrant force and a diligent worker who runs a six-day-a-week tailor shop by herself. For Sonia, the importance of keeping busy is no simple response to widowhood or means of fending off the loneliness of old age. A particular darkness has haunted her most of her life from her memories of the years she spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As the only Holocaust survivor in the Kansas City area to speak publicly about her experiences, she has turned those memories into a form of action that is both enlightening and therapeutic.

Her granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, directed the documentary with Todd Soliday and their approach is clear-eyed and measured as they observe Sonia in at work and during her visits with students and prisoners as a motivational speaker. We get glimpses of the tattooed number on Sonia’s arm as she goes through her days.

Sonia acknowledges her emotional damage as well as her refusal to be bowed by it. At 13, in the Polish city of Miedzyrzec, she watched from an attic window as neighbors were rounded up for the camps. Soon her family would be found in their hiding places. She never again saw her father or brother. At 17, she witnessed her mother entering the gas chamber. Years later, she heard the history-erasing claims of Holocaust deniers and this galvanized her to counter their propaganda with her truth.

We see the effect of that truth on the faces of those listening to her quiet, impassioned words. In a program addressing bullying and aimed at reducing recidivism, incarcerated men appear shaken to the core when they hear what happened to her family.

But with her husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor, Sonia created a family. Warshawski’s access to Sonia’s children takes the film into the wartime experience as an emotional inheritance for the second generation. Sonia’s son, Morrie, recalls a sadness in the household and his awareness that he and his siblings weren’t as “natural and free” as other kids.

The filmmakers, like Sonia herself, acknowledge the ongoing struggle that’s essential to surviving such trauma. There’s hard-fought clarity when Sonia says that she leaves the matter of forgiveness to a higher power. Since we are losing the last of the Holocaust survivors, we see the urgency when Sonia insists on remembering.

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” (“Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

The characters in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany”, live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash, and so he begins a scheme where he and his friends sell linens to local Germans at an outrageous markup. It’s a simple scam without guilt, since these very people were the same ones who favored David and his friends’ journey to the gas chamber, or at least pretended to be about what was really going on in their own country.

Over the course of the film, the characters have to examine their own pasts, what has happened to them and to their country, and wonder whether Germany is even their country anymore.

David recruits the other characters to join him in his scheme. The idea, of course, is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. And so this likeable group, filled with energy and audacity starts churning out curtains that are “made in Paris” and selling them to their German customers using a series of cynically comical methods, and rather visionary ones too in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, there is another plotline that is more solemn. Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has come back to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Each plotline leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before David concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind.

“THE MIDNIGHT ORCHESTRA”— Going Home

“The Midnight Orchestra” (“L’orchestre de minuit”)

Going Home

Amos Lassen

After leaving Morocco during racial tensions brought on by Israel’s Yom Kippur war, Michael Abitbol (Avishay Benazra), the son of a once famous Jewish musician travels to his home country to bury his father. As he meets the members of the band, his life unexpectedly transforms.

Abitbol returns to his childhood home in Casablanca to be reunited with his elderly father: legendary bandleader and local hero Marcel Botbol, from whom he has been estranged. Botbol is returning there himself for the first time since leaving his native city and adoring fans for Israel in 1973. No sooner do they meet again when tragedy strikes and the son must engage with officials of the local Jewish community to bury his father. But first Michael must fulfill his father’s last wish— he must reunite the band and this becomes an overwhelming desire to do so for one last gig.

We see the power that Casablanca exerts on the imagination. Both Jews and Muslims have been shaped by the city’s magic. Michael left Israel for America and became a successful Wall Street speculator who hopes to repair the fractured relationship he has with his father, Marcel, a famous Moroccan Jewish musician, who has also returned to the city after many years abroad.

Their return home, their universal story of return and remembrance, is at the heart of the film. For 2,000 years Jews have gone to Morocco, first as refugees from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and later as victims of Christian and Muslim persecution. Life there was not always easy, and the relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors have had ups and downs. But by the 20th century Moroccan Jews had become an integral part of the culture of the country.

The funeral of Marcel helps bring together the members of his old band in “The Midnight Orchestra.” The quest to find the band members is both comical and suspenseful and for Michael a bittersweet nostalgia trip too. His childhood around the band and its members is beautifully evoked by sepia tinted footage of the musicians in their prime. Michael sees the little ghost of his younger self too, haunting the places where he played as a boy.

For the audience the film is a look into the past and present of a Jewish community little known outside Morocco and into the now cordial relationship it has with the country’s Muslim majority. This is a poignant about regret and relationships, memory and getting old.

“Music is what brings them together,” director Jerome Cohen-Olivar has said, “but that’s really just a metaphor for a people who have been deprived of so much.”

“32 PILLS: MY SISTER’S SUICIDE”— A Personal Documentary

 

“32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide”

A Personal Documentary

Amos Lassen

The tragic death of her sister was Hope Litoff’s catalyst for the personal documentary “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide.” Litoff was hoping to find some inner peace while making the film but found herself confronting issues of guilt, denial and addiction.

Near the end of 2008 photographer Ruth Litoff was found in her Manhattan loft, having finally “succeeded” after 20 or more suicide attempts over many years. The police who went to the scene said that the entire apartment was meticulously prepared for the event, with notes, presents, etc. and with instructions for disbursement to various friends and family. A few days earlier, Ruth decorated her Manhattan loft like a beautiful stage set with fifteen suicide notes surrounding her and specially selected gifts for her closest friends. Multiple bowls of cat food were left in case it took awhile to find her.

The film begins on the day that Hope found Ruth dead and it then traces over her fascinating life and work with the highs and the lows and the secrets and the lies. It follows Hope’s journey examining her sister’s rich body of artwork, interviewing friends and family, and reading her journals for the very first time. Ruth excelled at everything she so the reason for her taking her own life was a mystery.  Making the film forced Hope to face difficult truths and caused her to drink again after 16 years of sobriety.

Ruth was a complex person who was sometimes dark yet brilliant and Hope wanted this to come through in the movie. Her story is told through interviews with friends and individuals who came to know her in life and through her death.  Ruth was incredibly dynamic and her creative mind was never still.  She was sexual, never without a boyfriend, and took nude photos of every one she ever had. She struggled and was desperate to understand who she was, and took hundreds of self-portraits that alternated between pride and self-loathing. While photography was her main medium but she also created collages, drawings, wry cartoons and videos and even her many suicide attempts were documented. These are revealing and capture her inner world.

This film is Hope’s effort to know and accept Ruth in death in a way that she was never able to in life and to learn to live with the pain of losing her.

Ruth was a, high-achieving role model who began turning into an over-dependent problem at a young age. Her first suicide attempt came at 13 and she was eventually diagnosed as bipolar, though in retrospect Hope thinks that borderline personality disorder might have been her condition. She had severe mood swings, depression bouts and ideas of suicide that caused broken relationships and other external upheavals.

Both girls reacted to their affluent parents’ crumbling marriage: Hope escaped into recreational drugs and blackout drinking from early adolescence. Even before Hope started drinking again, her husband, Todd, worried that she won’t be able to handle the emotions.

We see that Hope may have laid Ruth to rest at last to a degree, but her own issues will be with her for a long time. The film is emotionally powerful and is difficult watch. It speaks deeply to those who have struggled with depression or addiction or loved anyone who has.

“BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY”— A Beauty with Skills

“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”

A Beauty With Skills

Amos Lassen

Hedy Lamarr was just 16 when she became a natural born star. She was the first woman who simulated an orgasm in cinema. “Ecstasy” introduced her to the world. But Lamarr wanted to be seen as a clever woman, so she devised a secret communication system to help the Allies beat the Nazis. In “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” we see that a person is not to be defined by labels.

After the success of her debut film, Lamarr realized it would be hard to continue living in Austria. In 1937, she transferred to London and found an American film agent who took her to Hollywood. There the US press allowed her to be beautiful. But in the US, she lived a tough life because was a slave to her looks. She had six husbands and an adopted son who she abandoned years later. Her dalliances included Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy. Hughes shared with her a love for science but according to her he was the worst lover she has ever had. Hughes represented all she could get in life. She had the benefit of beauty, she attracted wealthy and remarkable men but she would have to conceal that she was intelligent too.

“Bombshellis based on the tapes of an interview Lamarr gave to Forbes 25 years ago revealing how she became a Hollywood tragedy. By the age of 75, she had to cope with the consequences of several blotched plastic surgeries. She was retired and reclusive. She struggled hard to escape the Hollywood label by inventing a system of communication which became a constituent part of wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies. She thought that the only possible way the Allies could send messages without been intercepted by the Germans was if they changed radio frequencies multiple times. Hedy worked with a pianist that helped her to build a box to communicate. She gave her patent to the United States Navy and received no credit for her invention. She lived in poverty in her final years.

Lamarr is the perfect example of how destructive ageism and strict beauty requirements can be. Her pictures as an old woman are quite terrifying.

Composer George Antheil worked together with Lamarr on some of the most disruptive technology of the last two centuries. As soon as Lamarr reached Hollywood, she ardently embraced anti-Nazi causes. However, when America, her beloved adopted nation, entered the war, Lamarr believed she had better ways to support the war effort than selling war bonds.

She had always had an inventor’s mind and thanks to her first of six husbands, she knew a little something about torpedoes. Decades ahead of her time, Lamarr developed a “frequency-hopping” method of guiding torpedoes through submerged waters and signal-jamming interference. Antheil helped her refine this into a deployable technology but the U.S. Navy just didn’t get it. As a result, they put the technology that would eventually become they cornerstone of wi-fi and Blue Tooth communications systems in storage.

 

Director and writer Alexandra Dean’s approach is straightforward all the way and the film, like Lamarr, is classy.

“KEEP THE CHANGE”— A Love Story

“Keep The Change”

A Love Story

Amos Lassen

Keep the Change”, directed and written by Rachel Israel is about the challenges a couple has with building face-to-face personal relationships in and out of their private worlds.

After being court-mandated punishment for making one of his trademark inappropriate jokes to a police officer, 30-year-old David (Brandon Polansky)is ordered to attend Connections, a New York City organization for autistic men and women. Wearing a blazer and dark sunglasses, David feels out of place in this community of strangers who he sees as “weirdos.” Yet we also see that David is tricking himself into believing he’s somehow superior. Things take an unexpected turn for David when he’s forced to work on a Brooklyn Bridge project with fellow Connections member Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who claims that she has autism and a “learning disability,” and who’s prone to expressing herself via streams of colloquialisms. David’s aggravation turns to love, however, after he and Sarah spend time together, and she confesses that she finds him “really smoking hot and so sexy.” Love soon blossoms via clumsy bear-hug kisses and bedroom sex. However, their budding relationship isn’t without its ups and downs.

The film follows David and Sarah’s affair with a sweetness while at the same time using comedy that comes out of their conditions and which often leads them to say inapt or peculiar things at random moments. The film doesn’t mock their idiosyncrasies; it celebrates them in all their forms. That extends to the raft of acquaintances David meets while at Connections, who in most cases are (like David and Sarah) are played by autistic amateur actors who are all the more charming for being so unaffected.

Uninhibited and yet often innocent and unaware, Elisofon is an endearingly, while Polansky captures a moving sense of David’s desire to be “normal” (something at least partially acquired from his parents) and his simultaneous yearning to be understood and accepted.

The film is a subtle political statement about autism but it is not a polemic statement. We see the bond that David and Sarah share as totally normal and perfectly weird.

 

“1945”— A Bitter Homecoming in Hungary

 

“1945”

A Bitter Homecoming in Hungary

Amos Lassen

The plains of Hungary are the setting for “1945”, a film about two Orthodox Jews, an elderly father (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy), who return to their village at the end of World War II. As the story unfolds, the elders of the village that now has no Jews are upset as the pair approach because the village’s residents have stolen and plundered the Jews’ homes, businesses and valuables, and are worried about these now being reclaimed. Tension mounts as the father and son approach, by horse and wagon, as a planned wedding is underway and is unexpectedly cancelled when a tragedy intervenes.

Director Ferenc Török worked for ten years to adapt the story for the screen. Shot in black and white, the film is the portrayal of a special day in the life of a small Hungarian village at the end of the Second World War as it deals with a past that is best forgotten and a threatening future. 

The presence of the two Jews sires fear in those who profited from their persecution. The comparison with the growing sense of nationalism in contemporary Hungary is clear to see as here victims who are portrayed as dangerous invaders by those in power. While for some nations, 1945 was the year of liberation from Nazi-fascism, other states in Eastern Europe simply went from being dominated by one foreign power to being dominated by another, turning a prosperous future into terrible misfortune: the final shot showing the black smoke from the train in the middle of the countryside is in this respect symbolic; what should have been a cause for celebration (a wedding) that turns into tragedy, in which no one is free from blame, from the parish priest to the mayor, from masters to servants. It is no accident that the only positive characters end up leaving the village. 

The small village is a microcosm of Hungarian society and the camera observes the victims discretely, always from the sidelines or from the other side of windows or bars. The narration is painful but necessary not only to understand what happened in the past but also for what’s happening now. There is the sense of a threatening future and that certain tragedies aren’t accidental but the result of the dissemination of demented ideas of the likes of nationalism and racism. In substance this is an honest film that commits itself to portraying Hungary in the immediate post-war period, showing that the fear of that which is foreign never pays off.

As the two men disembark from the tiny train station, local whispers spread. Shopkeepers and housewives peer through their curtains fearfully; the town clerk and the sheriff quickly prepare themselves for a conflict.

The source of the conflict is also deeper than one might initially assume. This is a provincial European town that, like so many others under Nazi occupation, closed ranks on its non-Gentile population. Its policemen, town officials and even parish priests conveniently ignored the mass deportation of their Jewish neighbors, often in exchange for silverware, trinkets and homes.

The film takes place over the course of one day as these lost neighbors return home. We see a claustrophobic view of moral degeneration that becomes apparent when the town shows its defensive anger. The townspeople never expected their former neighbors to come back.

As the two returning Jewish men embark on an untold mission, carrying trunks and walking silently across the city, panic ensues. The townspeople wonder if they will demand their property or seek vengeance? Town clerk Istvan (Peter Rudolf) is particularly vigilant. He is a prominent and well-off citizen who bristles at the thought that any of his previously owned possessions might have to be returned. As the degree of Istvan’s own culpability in wartime events becomes clear, he begins to backslide into paranoid rage. Torok uses intimate and unsparing close-ups on Rudolf’s wide-set face and those of the film’s characters. He juggles the topography of this small town and the faces reminiscent of early westerns.

It just so happens that the day of the strangers’ visit coincides with the wedding of Istvan’s son. As the father and son travel with quiet dignity to their intended location, the sense of panic around the town reaches its peak. The locals seem so concerned with holding on to their ill-gotten gains that they never pause to consider a different possibility. The film focuses on deceit and lies and their caustic nature that breaks apart a cover István’s managed to maintain during the war.

Suspicions raise fears of reclamation and István finds not all participants of his scheme have been able to expunge guilt. As he’s eventually told face-to-face, the whole town knows the degree to which he wrangled a fine house and local drugstore from the Jews and so the question director Török poses is whether the pair’s arrival is for justice, or something simpler since their arrival isn’t with a police escort.

The film’s strongest material is in the themes of corruption that corrode almost every citizen. We learn that teenage daughters nervously shake, wives take drugs, brides cheat on their fiancés, and the men seek refuge by the bottle. We get an eerie glimpse into the central lifespan of a lie after its been seeded, and nears the end of its power.