A People in Transition
Attention, Jews of generations X through Z: In case you missed it, novelist Joseph Epstein laid down a pretty severe gauntlet in last week's issue of Newsweek. After deriding your parents for giving you inflated trust funds and WASPy first names, he accused you of frivolity, assimilation, and too-frequent intermarriage with goyim, en route to proclaiming that "American Jews have lost the great energy that made them such a force in American life" throughout the 20th Century. Bernie Madoff's crimes seem almost tame in comparison.
To confirm or refute Epstein's thesis would take a fair amount of expertise and chutzpah the likes of which no one at this publication possesses (well, at least not the expertise). Instead we offer judgment on three films showing at the upcoming 12th Annual Miami Jewish Film Festival, which runs January 24 through February 1. From these reviews, readers are free to extrapolate all sorts of blanket claims about the state of Jewish cultural life. New Times accepts no responsibility.
The lifeblood of any ethno- or geocentric film festival, documentaries always rally the troops. In that sense, Refusenik (2008), a thorough cataloging of the movement to free Jews from Soviet-controlled Russia, does not disappoint. The film will probably garner standing ovations, especially in light of the increased solidarity among South Florida Jews created by the ongoing conflict in Gaza. It claims heroes and portrays them heroically — and rightfully so. For the 30-some years of the Cold War, the Soviet state actively refused the right of emigration to approximately 1.5 million Jews (now known as Refuseniks), while harassing, imprisoning, and exiling the most outspoken of them. Director Laura Bialis deserves accolades for her level of journalistic integrity. Besides securing interviews with every major Refusenik, including ballet dancers Valery and Galina Panov and celebrity dissident Anatoly Sharansky, she leaves no archival stone unturned, incorporating news footage, home movies, and still photos in a barrage that seems to capture every possible angle. Plus she somehow gets Mikhail Gorbachev to sit down in front of a rolling camera and explain himself — no small feat for a 30-year-old with one full-length doc under her belt. The downside to her meticulousness is that the film sometimes feels like the cinematic equivalent of a textbook; hyperfactual yet driven by an inevitable — and thus exhausting — meta-narrative, namely, "The good guys will win in the end." In light of the fact that Russia today is more boldly oppressive than ever and its primary foil has lost, for the moment, both the financial and the moral high-ground with which to combat it, a slightly sober counterpoint might have been in order.
Much more exhausting is The Seven Days, yet another film that uses the implied structure provided by Shiva, the weeklong period of bereavement stipulated by Torah. One of the tropes of a Shiva film, as it must now be called a genre all its own, is that its restrictions suffocate a modern family, and while the confinement of a large group of relatives into a small apartment might provide sufficient tension for 200 minutes, it also re-creates a fair portion of the agony. The plot also feels a little too familiar: "Good brother" Maurice has died, leaving his siblings in a financial bind that also uncovers old wounds, romantic and otherwise. They may be fastidious historians, but Jewish filmmakers could stand to ask, "WWWD?" ("What would Woody do?") a little more often, and the answer in this case is "Add more jokes." One of the many geniuses of Woody Allen is that he recognizes how inherently funny death is but that conversely it always reserves the last laugh for itself. Although The Seven Days has occasional moments of levity, they aren't nearly numerous enough for a movie that feels more like a soap opera on Univision than the heart-wrenching chamber piece it wants to be.
Thank heaven then for The Beetle, a movie we hope someone will pass across Allen's desk, because its star/director, Yishai Orian, functions a lot like a young Israeli version of Woody. Like Allen, Orian has an undeniable charm that makes even the way he eats cereal funny, besides the fact that he's an enormously clever filmmaker. The plot will seem too thin for most: Orian's wife is expecting their first child and is requesting, in that peculiarly forceful way of all good Jewish mothers, that Orian scrap his beloved VW Beetle in favor of a safer, family-oriented option. But great films have been made on much less a story line than this one (De Sica's Ladri di biciclette, for instance), and midway through, you will be rooting for the survival of this car as if it were Bambi herself. Part of the movie's success is owed to Orian's filmmaking — the editing and storytelling put 99 percent of fiction films to shame — but most of it has to do with Orian himself, a thoroughly likeable character torn between his responsibilities to himself (as an artist) and his wife and son-to-be (as a husband and, intriguingly, as a Jew). Is it too much to say this film is about the beauty of the human soul? That the Beetle, even as it remains a symbol of Nazi Germany, becomes a thoroughly convincing symbol for that soul? That it makes a quietly compelling cry for peace between Israelis and Arabs while simultaneously providing more laughs than the last three Will Ferrell movies combined?
American Jews, if you can persuade Yishai Orian to move here, Joseph Epstein can finally sleep soundly.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.