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World Cinema, Local Screens

Broken Promises

Jewish Film Festival picks up speed this week

The Jewish Film Festival celebrates its silver anniversary this week with a dozen films that for the most part have neither played in this area or been commercially distributed in the United States. Second only to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival as the oldest of its kind in the US, the JFF is this area’s most reliable annual presentation of quality world cinema. It runs from Saturday through Thursday at the Amherst Theater, and it offers a dozen feature films, most of which will be screened twice. Full information including trailers and a schedule are available at

Broken Promise
Slovakia, Czech Republic, USA 2009

The pleasant early scenes detailing the life in the western Slovakian village of Banovce have an ominous undercurrent, given our knowledge of that existence’s imminent destruction. It’s 1938, and the exclusion of 13-year-old Martin Friedmann (Samuel Spisak) from village soccer matches is among the first restrictions to be imposed on Banovce’s Jews after the establishment of Hitler’s satellite fascist regime. Soon their plight is much more dire, and they’re being shipped off to Slovak work camps, and to more deadly destinations. Martin is spared this latter fate because of his superior athletic skills, his youth, and a lot of good fortune.

Jiri Chlumsky’s fact-based film was Slovakia’s submission to this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar competition. It’s a densely episodic account of the very dangerous and painful seven-year odyssey of Martin as a camp inmate, a sanitarium patient, a Catholic monastery resident, and an anti-German partisan. The film has a superficial resemblance to Agnieszka Holland’s 1991 Europa, Europa, but its story is told in a less dramatically striking fashion. Still, the film has a compelling pull and its incident-crammed narrative contains a vibrant complement of diverse characters, both noble and evil, among the latter those Slovaks whose resistance to the Germans didn’t override their deep-seated hatred of the Nazis’ Jewish victims. (George Sax) Tues 8pm, Thurs 1:30pm.

A Matter of Size
Israel, Germany, France 2009

In the vein of The Full Monty, this Israeli comedy can be described in two words you’ve probably never seen together before: Sumo Jews. Overweight since childhood, 350-pound Herzl’s (Itzik Cohen) only friends are fellow sufferers in a diet group whose unsympathetic leader kicks him out for being a bad influence on the others. When he loses his job as a cook as well, he ends washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant, where he is first exposed to a sport that makes heroes out of men who look like him, Sumo wrestling. His determination to form an Israeli Sumo team while exploring a romance with plus-sized Zehava (Irit Kaplan, named Best Actress by the Israeli Film Academy) are the basis of this likeable comedy that finds a novel way to use a familiar formula. A US remake is in development. The film will be introduced by Charles Bray of the SumoKids Foundation of Buffalo. Sun 6 pm, Tue 4pm.

The Wedding Song
France, Tunisia 2008

This slice-of-life drama takes place in Tunisia in 1942, soon after the country had been occupied by Germany. The situation is more complex than in some European countries: The country had previously been under French control, leading to tensions between the native Arabs and the Jewish community, which was seen as receiving preferential treatment. The Nazis are therefore welcomed by some Tunisians who see them as liberators. This is background for a sensual story about the coming of age of two young teenaged girls, Jewish Myriam and Muslim Nour, whose hopes for marriage are even less of their own making than they would normally be. Director Karin Albou (who co-stars as Myriam’s mother) sets out to recreate a woman’s perspective on the time, and succeeds in ways that may be surprising to many viewers. Sun 8 pm, Wed 4 pm.

A Secret
France 2007

“Oddly, my parents never talked of the Occupation,” says Francois (Mathieu Amalric), a Parisian psychologist. This film by veteran director Claude Miller (Garde à vue, The Little Thief) tells the story behind that studied silence, an interplay of intimate relations and dislocating historical forces. Adapted from Philippe Grimbert’s published memoir, it probes backward decades to reveal the tragic consequences of Francois’ parents’ relationship during the Second World War era. Opening in 1955 with a 10-year-old Francois, anxious and feeling estranged from his father (Patrick Bruel), it traces the roots of this estrangement to the period before the war’s outbreak and Francois’ birth. We slowly back up to the German invasion of France and a terrible turn of events that resembles a reverse twist to Sophie’s Choice.

Considering the elemental nature of the personal relations, and their crucial historical setting, A Secret is strangely flat in some of its scenes; the characters sometimes seem remote to us, not just to Francois. Perhaps the material in Grimbert’s book was too unwieldy and introspective. But the film sustains our attention despite its flaws, largely through Bruel’s finely calibrated performance and the enduring interest of this deeply sorrowful story. (George Sax) Mon 6pm, Thu 6pm.

Israel 2008

Although it was co-written by its star, Hadar Galron, an Israeli comedienne, this fascinating look at feminism in the orthodox community is never comical. Galron plays Bruriah, a woman named after a story in the Talmud that obsessed her father. In the second century, Bruriah mocked the rabbis who called women “light-minded.” Her husband tricked her to prove her wrong, resulting in her suicide. The modern Bruriah’s father wrote a book about this suppressed story, but the book was burned and he and his family ex-communicated. She is determined to find the one remaining copy of her father’s book, a quest which so disturbs her observant husband Yaakov that the original story begins to replay itself, though in a way we cannot predict. Tue 1:30pm, Wed 8pm.

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

You don’t have to be a fan of comic art to enjoy Andrew D. Cooke’s documentary about the artist who arguably created both comic books and graphic novels. Based on interviews conducted with Eisner shortly before his death in 2005, the film is interested less in the content of Eisner’s groundbreaking series The Spirit than it is about the origins of this once disreputable business that largely sprang from the imaginations of Jewish artists from the lower East side of Manhattan. That his heritage was not incidental to his work becomes clearer later in Eisner’s life with his pioneering grapohic novel A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. Including interviews with Eisner contemporaries and protégés such as Jules Feiffer, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Stan Lee, and others, this is fascinating for anyone with an interest in popular culture of the last century. It will be presented by comic book authority Emil J. Novak, proprietor of Queen City Books. Tue 6pm.

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Also playing at this year’s festival: Brothers (Switzerland 2008), drama about the reunion of two brothers whose religious and political beliefs have kept them apart for 25 years, Sat 8pm, Sun 1:30pm; Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (Australia 2009), comedy starring Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes as a public school girl who helps a Jewish friend escape her stifling private school by posing as a Swedish exchange student, Sun 4pm, Wed 6pm; Holy Land Hardball (USA 2009), a documentary about a Boston baker’s attempt to bring baseball to Israel, Mon 1:30pm, Thu 4pm; Tickling Leo (USA 2009), drama in which three generations of a Jewish family unearth family secrets while on a vacation in the Catskills, Mon 8pm, Thu 8pm; At Home in Utopia (USA 2008), documentary about The Coops, a utopian housing complex built in the Bronx in 1928 by immigrant Jews who wanted to build a better life, Mon 4pm; and Operation Mural (Switzerland, Morocco, and Israel 2007), documentary about a 1961 operation to smuggle Jewish children out of Morocco, Wed 1:30pm.

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