Friday, December 4, 2009

Film review: Three worth watching at Jewish movie fest

Mirta Bogdasarian in La Cámara Oscura.

By Hap Erstein

Only a few of the 20th annual Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival’s entries were made available for advance reviews, but here are a few of them worth at least partial attention:

* Hello, Goodbye (France, 99 min., Sat., Dec. 5, 7:20 pm, Cobb Dowtown) -- For many Israel is an idealized promised land, but director Graham Guit puckishly examines the details of that promise in his amusing, if formulaic, fish-out-of-water comedy starring two French cinema icons, Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant.

Depardieu is a successful gynecologist in Paris who is Jewish, but with no connection to the religion or the culture. To cheer up his wife, who faces an empty nest after their son marries, he suggests a vacation trip, but is taken aback when she insists she yearns to go to Israel. There her mood brightens, they have satisfying sex, a job seems to fall in his lap, a condominium deal sounds too good to pass up, so they decide to pack up their belongings and move to Tel Aviv.

Of course, they know no Hebrew, are used to the creature comforts of Paris and the Jewish version of Murphy’s Law goes into effect, as everything that can go wrong does. A mountainous Depardieu and a soulful-eyed Ardant are truly “strangers in a strange land,” enduring calamities that rock the foundation of their marriage. The woes of Job will come to mind, but the actors and Guit handle it all with a pleasantly light touch.

* The Gift to Stalin (Kazakhstan, 107 min., Tues., Dec. 8, 1:20 pm, Regal Delray) -- As the festival’s first-ever film from Kazakhstan, this sweeping epic fable of a young Jewish boy adopted by a rural village in post-World War II Soviet Union has some curious story threads, but is redeemed by footage of the vast, barren landscape and by the affecting performances by the authentic, largely amateur cast.

The time is 1949, when Stalin is purging Jews from Russia, sending them by train to the hinterlands, a journey that inevitably kills many of them along the way. A small orphaned Jewish boy named Sashka (Dalen Shintemirov) is saved from the corpse pile by a one-eyed, hulking rail switch worker, Kasym (Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev), and raised in the alien Muslim ways of the Kazakh people.

The film, directed by Rustem Abdrashev, is quite episodic. It meanders among the boy’s harrowing adventures with a gang of ragamuffins, the melodrama of a woman named Vera who is sexually taken by force by the local policeman, her grasp for romantic happiness with the community’s well-meaning doctor, Sashka’s efforts to gather an appropriate tribute gift for the titular Soviet leader and an abrupt climax resulting from a nearby atomic test.

Each in its own way intrigues, but the collective results seem shapeless, and are not helped by a few fleeting flash-forwards to the grown Sashka in modern-day Jerusalem.

* La Cámara Oscura (Argentina, 86 min., Sat., Dec. 12, 7:20 p.m., Regal Delray) -- Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but ugliness is often met with invisibility. Just ask Gertrudis, a female of unsurpassing plainness, who comes into the world, is quickly assessed to be a meeskite, and lives a life of embarrassed shame, running from cameras, turning her face from the world.

Yet in Maria Victoria Menis’s wry little film, it is Gertrudis’s shy indifference to a wealthy suitor that attracts him to her and in an abrupt 20-year transition, she is married with grown children, settled in her unassuming world. Ironically, it is the arrival of a traveling photographer that her husband has hired to take family portraits on their plantation that transforms her self-image.

As Gertrudis, Mirta Bogdasarian gives an exquisitely subtle performance that draws an audience into her esteem quandary. Director Menis manages to re-create 19th-century Argentina on a relatively small budget and she adds touches of whimsy with some tangential animation, but the film overall tends to be glacially slow.

20TH ANNUAL PALM BEACH JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL, Cobb Downtown 16, Palm Beach Gardens; Regal Delray, Delray Beach; Wellington Reel World Cinema 8. Through Sunday, Dec.. 13. Tickets: $8- $12, except opening night ($18). Call: (561) 712-5201. See the full schedule here.

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