By Nick Schager
By Inkoo Kang
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amanda Lewis
By Ily Goyanes
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Ciara LaVelle
By Chuck Wilson
Over nine days beginning Saturday, December 11, the Miami Jewish Film Festival, in its third year, will unspool 32 films, mostly at the Regal on South Beach. While the movies all have a Jewish connection, this year's offerings are an impressively varied and top-quality lot. A few are familiar, such as Argentina's Autumn Sun, but many are new releases from all over the map, including Bulgaria, Israel, and Poland. How's this for diversity: Yidl in the Middle (1999) is a one-hour short about growing up Jewish in Iowa, while Yidl Mitn Fidl is the 1937 classic of Yiddish cinema starring Molly Picon; Port of Last Resort (1999), out of Austria, documents the strange but ultimately successful migration of Jews from Europe on the eve of World War II to the open and decadent city of Shanghai; two American legends are profiled in Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note (1998) and this year's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (America's first Jewish baseball star); plus, a number of intriguing full-length dramas will be featured, four of which are reviewed in this section.
The festival kicks off with proof that German cinema truly has come out of its slump; 1998's Rosenzweig's Freiheit (Freedom), in fact, does such a good job of depicting the ugly world of post-Wall Eastern Germany that one's feelings about the German soul itself, by the end of the film, can be disconcertingly ambiguous. Directed by Liliane Targownik, Freiheit gives us a psychological horror story about a Jewish lawyer who defends his brother against accusations that he murdered a neo-Nazi. The backdrop is an East German town, where right-wing thugs have torched a hostel for Vietnamese immigrants, one of whom is the brother's girlfriend. The fact that the brothers' parents are Holocaust survivors adds such a subtle and painful thread of guilt, both to the Germans and the Jews in the story, that it makes Freiheit one of the most skilled and disturbing movies in the festival. Comedian Harmonists (1998), a musical about the rise and fall of Berlin's legendary vocal ensemble, and 1999's Viehjud Levi(Jew-Boy Levi ), which takes place in the Black Forest circa 1935, are the two other interesting German offerings this year.
Opening and closing nights include receptions, and movies will be screened at the Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd., with two special showings of Viehjud Levi and Photographer at the Regal Kendall Cinema 9, 12090 Kendall Dr. Opening-night film and gala costs $150, closing night is $10; individual shows cost $7.50 for evening screenings, $6.50 for matinees, and $75 will get you a fast pass for as many films as you can take. For tickets and information call 305-573-7304 or see moviefone.com. -- Anne Tschida
Modern-day Israel during the Gulf War is an unlikely setting for a tale that takes place in the charmed universe of Arik Kaplun's engrossing film, which won the Wolgin Award for Best Israeli Film at the 1999 Jerusalem Film Festival. At the beginning of Yana's Friends, it seems as though anything but happiness is going to come to the group of recent and established immigrants who live in the same Tel Aviv neighborhood. Thanks to serendipity, however, plus a little directorial sleight of hand, these people find themselves the recipients of a peculiar brand of good luck.
Yana (Evelyn Kaplun) is a young Russian immigrant who has just arrived in Israel with her husband, Fim. They use some of their immigration stipend to rent space in an apartment building, and Fim takes the balance with him on a trip back to Moscow to help with a business deal. Yana, who's pregnant, waits for him to call, resisting the friendship of Eli, the filmmaker who shares their flat and who incessantly records the life around him with his video camera. Lonely and impatient, Yana phones Moscow only to find out that Fim has tricked her and isn't coming back. Meanwhile a young married couple with a baby moves in next door. Also living with them is the wife's grandfather, a World War II veteran confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. Left out on the sidewalk as the young people unload their furniture, he dozes, as passersby mistake him for a beggar and drop coins in his hat.
These two groups of people (Eli and Yana and the couple with the baby) aren't aware of one another's existence, but their fates intertwine in several fascinating ways. One semicomic story thread involves the couple's attempts to use Grandpa as a source of income. Each morning they wheel his chair out to a busy street corner and collect the coins that people toss in. Soon he's competing for handouts with a street musician, an accordion player trying to catch the attention of the music school nearby. One day the musician endangers Grandpa's life.
At the same time, Yana must figure out how to avoid eviction, since she no longer has enough money to stay in her apartment. She also must decide whether to continue her pregnancy. She appeals to her landlady, Rosa, once an immigrant herself, but is rebuffed. (Rosa, however, reappears with great import in the lives of her tenants, claiming her own part in the human jigsaw puzzle that structures the film.) While looking for a job, Yana answers an ad that was posted by her neighbors in hopes of finding a nurse for Grandpa. She doesn't get the job. What happens instead is far more engrossing.
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