I saw six films at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, and wish I could say that they were all first rate, but somehow I seemed to have selected a group of weaker ones. Or perhaps the festival’s choices were not as strong this year.
Perhaps the best film was last night’s “Beau Jest”, the new cinematic version of a Broadway play we had seen years ago. It’s a light, easy going comedy (with a somewhat troubling underside). Sarah’s Jewish parents are not happy with her gentile boyfriend Chris, so she tells them that they have broken up, and that she has started to date a new fellow, Jewish doctor David Steinberg. Only Steinberg doesn’t exist, so she goes to an escort service and hires an actor to pretend like he is David Steinberg, so she can pacify her parents and keep them off her case. Suffice it to say that things get very confusing, before they all work out (for everyone but Chris).
Only two others of the movies had story lines, both adopted from novels. The first, “One Day You’ll Understand”, was adopted from an autobiographical novel written by Jerome Clement. Set in contemporary France, it is the story of a sophisticated Catholic businessman who discovers that his mother is Jewish, although she has never mentioned it to him. He is obsessed with discovering the past of his two families, one Jewish and one gentile, and increasingly upset at his mother’s secrecy. The best thing about the movie is Jeanne Moreau, who plays the mother. Other than that, although obviously touching a sensitive topic, the film has too many unanswered questions, and pieces that don’t quite fit together. It also has the strange phenomenon of his mother’s wake, very un-Jewish, but where a young rabbi is in attendance telling our hero that he must say kaddish, even though he isn’t Jewish.
The other story film, “Villa Jasmine”, is set in Tunis, which gives it an exotic feel, and centers on the son of the very wealthy French-Jewish family, who becomes a gossip columnist by day and a socialist journalist by night, who goes off to fight against the Nazis in the French army, but is later sent to Sachsenhausen as a prisoner, returns to Tunisia, is caught up in the independence and nationalistic movements and dies an early death. The tale is told by his son, living in America, who with his young bride makes his first trip back to Tunisia (he left when he is four) amidst a mixture of strong and conflicting emotions.
The other three films were documentaries. I have already written about the Guggenheim/Kennedy films. There was a short film about the Loscano Sisters, a Dutch/Jewish trio that became extraordinarily popular in Italy before WWII, and then were blacklisted and imprisoned during the war. They returned and recovered, but their act didn’t. Another interesting and sad story. You can hear them on youtube.
Finally, a documentary called “Salonica” which was, not surprisingly about Salonica, the Greek city which had a Ladino-speaking Jewish minority until the Jews were deported and killed during World War II. The movie was visually very interesting (particularly to me, who has always wanted to see Salonica), and contained only contemporary footage, consisting of interviews with a few remaining Jewish residents, and a number of non-Jewish Greek residents. I thought it provided an interesting aspect of what Salonica must be like today.