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10/23/2003

Film > Movies

Semitically active

 

Just how crucial are politics to the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival? It's a loaded question to begin with, seemingly grounded in the tunnel vision that ties every aspect of the international Jewish experience to hot-button issues like the rapid collapse of the Middle East road map. But to audiences who have supported the previous four editions of the event (an annual joint venture of Maitland's Enzian Theater and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando), the matter is still worth considering. If there's been a recurring theme running through the festival's stylistically diverse roster of dramas, comedies and documentaries, it's the idea that Jewishness is an inevitably political state of being. And, commensurately, that any member of the tribe who wishes to escape that reality may be in for a rude awakening.

A similar lesson propels The Holy Land, the challenging, ruminative feature that has been selected as the closing-night feature of the fifth annual festival. In Eitan Gorlin's taboo-breaking drama, a young rabbinical student (Oren Rehany) is distracted from his scholarship by his raging libido. Following his teacher's odd advice to seek out a prostitute as a "safe" outlet, the impressionable Mendy allows one night of slumming to devolve into a full-bore immersion in the seedier pleasures of Jerusalem. His new world is a strange m?lange of gregarious American barkeeps, Arab smugglers and gun-toting Israeli militants, all of whom appear to coexist in a state of boozy tolerance.

Mendy's transformation into a secular animal is spurred by the love he develops for his hooker of choice, a Russian named Sasha (Tchelet Semel, perfectly portraying the contempt that resides beneath a sex worker's practiced flirtatiousness). But while their unlikely affair occupies center stage, filmmaker Gorlin cultivates a stealthy subtheme of political unrest. Mendy's respite from Judaism is nothing more than an illusion. And illusions have a funny way of getting shattered.

Lighter in tone but just as committed to its own set of identity politics, the documentary Shalom Y'all is Brian Bain's love letter to the Jews of the American South. A New Orleans native, Bain lovingly probes the mysteries of the their existence -- particularly if their reputation for being "better assimilated" denotes innate gentility or mere kowtowing to a hostile environment. Part history lesson and part Kuraltian travelogue, the movie includes snatches of interviews with historian Eli Evans, musician Kinky Friedman, golden-gloves champ Leo Center and former U.S. congressman Elliott Levitas.

Yet Bain lavishes at least as much face time on the members of his own family. Following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Alan Berliner ("The Sweetest Sound"), he wisely puts his own experience at the forefront of the picture, helping this sociological trifle mutate into something substantially different and more focused -- a living souvenir of a place where the personal meets the political. (The film's Sunday-afternoon screening is preceded by the short "Today You Are a Fountain Pen," a twee Bar Mitzvah memoir that's nothing more than a Semitic take on "The Wonder Years." Don't kick yourself if you show up late.)

Ironically, the festival entry that's the biggest ideological whitewash is the one whose milieu is the political arena: Only in America, an effective but shallow piece of propaganda about Orthodox candidate Joe Lieberman's history-making spot on the 2000 presidential ticket. No matter what you think of the man himself, suppressing a lump in the throat is practically impossible as the movie cleverly associates his watershed campaign with the struggles of JFK and Martin Luther King. But not for a second does the doc stoop to address what Lieberman is actually for or against. There's a brief argument that the magnitude of some events is "bigger than politics"; even so, one could stand an acknowledgment of the widespread concerns -- many of them, remember, voiced by Jewish commentators -- that Lieberman, in flaunting his religious beliefs, was trampling the division between church and state. (While watching the movie, mentally substitute "fundamentalist Christian" for "Orthodox Jew," and see how quickly your reaction changes.)

Amid all the postelection backslapping about our Joe going the distance, director/editor Ron Frank appears oblivious to his movie's more sobering implication: A Jew can get elected vice president, but what victory has he really won if he can't get the Supreme Court to acknowledge it? Of the many experts consulted, comic Alan King comes closest to the mark, correctly arguing that the dismissal of Palm Beach County voters as addled incompetents was in itself an act of anti-Semitism.

As proof that Lieberman didn't invent the idea of blaming popular culture for social ills, we have Gloomy Sunday, a drama based on the haunting hit song that allegedly moved more than 150 listeners to commit suicide in the 1930s. As a result, it was banned from numerous radio playlists. (Yes, this is what folks did before they had Marilyn Manson to kick around.) In director/co-writer Ršlf Schübel's highly fictionalized account, the tune is composed by a Hungarian pianist who is involved in a self-destructive love triangle with a dark-haired beauty and the restaurateur who employs them both.

A full 40 minutes go by before the movie exhibits any palpable "Jewish" focus, but that restraint only adds to its ultimate power. Though the boss, Lászlò Szabo (Joachim Kròl), is of the faith, the other two main characters are not, and the distinction comes to mean everything as the Third Reich marches up to their doorstep. The encroaching evil is personified by Ben Becker's chilling portrayal of a customer who falls in line with the Nazi regime.

Schübel's tight, philosophically sound narrative proposes that nationalist offensives are inseparable from personal demons like lust, envy and blind resentment. Though Lászlò has made no visible effort to ally himself in the politics of Judaism, he ultimately learns that they will be thrust upon him anyway. But any fan of the Jewish Film Festival could have seen that coming.

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