Yana (Evelyn Kaplun), withouther friends
Yana (Evelyn Kaplun), without
her friends

Festival of Highlights

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.

A benevolent spirit is looking over these characters, one that may not be able to give them peace of mind but that nonetheless brings the comfort of human connection. The film's only misstep is that it allows one easy coincidence to take place when a character too quickly recognizes someone from the distant past. Kaplun has such a subtle command of the small moments of his characters' lives, though, that it's easy to forgive this gaffe. He also resists simplistic solutions. The conflicts that surround these people are presented with intelligence and complexity. The anger that exists between the native or longtime Israelis and the constant flux of immigrants they are forced to cope with is just one example.

The constant presence of war is a sinister soundtrack to the lives of the characters. The Gulf War predominates as a subject of conversation, a topic of daily TV news reports, and as the source of air raids that interrupt sleep at night. Grandpa's war is beyond the memory of most of the characters, who don't see the tragedy of a veteran who can no longer fend for himself. A more startling revelation for Yana is finding out that Rosa's life was utterly changed by the 1967 War. Death, separation, reconciliation, and love connect all these individuals. The magic of Yana's Friends is that each is transformed by the realization that fate is other people. -- Robin Dougherty

Director Ivan Nitchev's film tells the story of the communist era in Bulgaria through the eyes of a fiftyish Israeli professor who returns to his hometown in Bulgaria to give a lecture, then learns what happened in the years since his family emigrated to Israel when he was twelve years old. After the End of the World, which was nominated for the Crystal Globe award in this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, is both nostalgic and gripping, a rare look at the tragedy that befell Bulgarians after World War II.

No sooner than he lands in Bulgaria, Albert Cohen is pressured by lawyers who want to buy his late grandfather's house and put up a hotel. When he visits the site, he finds it inhabited by squatters, descendants of the Gypsies who were thrown off the land by communist authorities in the 1950s. He also comes across old friends. In particular he meets the woman who, as a girl, had been his sweetheart until her family had tried to emigrate to France. Through flashbacks and conversation, we learn about the youthful love affair between the young Berto and Araxi, set amid a community where Moslems, Christians, and Jews had lived together for centuries. Bathhouses, klezmer music, and squabbling clergymen provide a high-spirited backdrop for Bert's story. The emotional heart of this village, though, is his grandfather, Avram, a popular tinsmith and bon vivant.

The screenplay (by Angel Vagenshtain) is most compelling, however, for the way it documents the communist regime. The Gypsies are harassed by the police and forced to leave when their ancient graveyard is plowed under to make way for a collective farm. Araxi's family, it turns out, was forbidden to emigrate and her parents forced into labor camps. The village schoolteacher, an ardent supporter of communist ideals, gets kicked out of the Party. And things are no better after the fall of communism, when mobsters and petty bureaucrats take over. Filmed with filters that accentuate the golden light of Cohen's memories, After the End of the World is not particularly interesting as one man's memoir. The details of his life are generic. But as the history of a nation besieged by people with no sense of the past, or the importance of preserving culture, the film is fascinating indeed. -- Robin Dougherty

Written and directed by Daniel Petrie, 1997's The Assistant is a film about moral conscience during the depression, the misery and desperation of which is immediately revealed in the film's opening credits. Using archival footage of homeless and jobless men, these images explain, in part, the motivation of two masked and desperate young drifters who assault a store owned by a sick, old Jewish man (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), who had fled to the United States with his family to escape rising anti-Semitism in their German homeland.

The film concentrates on the goodhearted gentile thief, Frank Alpine (played by Gil Bellows) who, overwhelmed by a guilty conscience, returns to the store to offer the store owner, Morris Bober, assistance in repairing the damage he was responsible for creating. While Bober is initially distrustful of Frank, his fragile health leaves him no choice but to accept his assistance. The store soon begins to prosper with Frank's help, and the story's plot incorporates an additional entanglement when Frank falls for Bober's beautiful daughter, Helen (Kate Greenhouse). This relationship is frowned upon by a nagging Mrs. Bober (Joan Plowright), who insists that "a Jew must remain a Jew," and therein lies the real heart of the film: Asks Frank innocently: "What is a Jew?" It's at this point that the film becomes a more mature and reflective story on two levels -- one that explores both Jewish family values and Judaism at a time when Nazism is about to burst horrifically upon the world scene, and another that exposes the decay of American values during times of extreme economic hardship (although this Manichaean comparison can be overdone).

The Assistant, however, also falls back on its melodramatic roots as the other thief (played by Jaimz Woolvet) re-emerges to stalk Frank, threatening to expose his one-time companion's true identity. Riddled with resentment and controlled by alcohol, thief number two doesn't progress: He's as bad-natured at the end of the film as he is in the beginning.

Although director Petrie -- a veteran Canadian filmmaker (Fort Apache: The Bronx, 1981) with a background in television -- skillfully manages the film's dialogue, The Assistant is more of an academic piece with a traditional aesthetic. Based on Bernard Malamud's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1957 novel of the same name, the film stays firmly stuck in the candor and simplicity of Hollywood's golden era, where the good find redemption in love while the bad find only the wrath of God. But it is also a remarkably spiritual film. Frank, for instance, is devoted to Saint Francis -- the holy anchorite who forms his wife and family out of snow in order to relieve his solitude, while Helen searches for answers in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. This Raskolnikov comparison with Frank's demeanor gives some substance to what can be an overly dramatic plot. And regardless the original book's distinction, The Assistant is hindered by a conservative and overly long narrative, a result of the director's desire to stay faithful to the book's roots, sacrificing a more contemporary cinematic pacing. Still, in this pre-Holocaust world, there's a compelling story in the struggle over the place of morality, honesty, religion, and love. -- Sergio Giral

This Israeli movie opens with a suggestive closeup of a beautiful young woman, Nina, being photographed by her grandfather. The photography session leads to ruminations about the art of photography, described by the old man as "something more than pushing a button" and as capturing in a moment "a slide of life." With this premise writer/director Michal Bat-Adam develops a wonderful story out of Love at Second Sight (1998), with scarce resources and a lot of wisdom. The plot's simple treatment highlights the drama in a testimonial style, sometimes resembling Godard's first films, even echoing Truffaut. This spontaneous approach to reality, seen through the lens of Nina's camera, captures an interesting view of daily life in Tel Aviv, and helps develop an original love story as well as a tender relationship between the grandfather and granddaughter in a parallel retrospective.

Nina (Michal Zuaratz, who resembles a young Natalie Wood) is a photographer for a local newspaper who uses the camera inherited from her grandfather as a talisman. After photographing a dramatic scene in which a man jumps from a roof, Nina becomes obsessed with the face of the young man she has accidentally captured on film. She begins to search for him all over the city, even though her friends try in vain to dissuade her. Scene by scene, Nina's quest uncovers different types of men and social categories, from the university student to the new immigrant, and demonstrates what a woman in love can and will do.

At times the director breaks from the story line to reconstruct Nina's childhood, family life, and national affairs with a simplicity that makes this film a minimalist gem full of energy and beauty. We see the photographer grandfather taking photos of Ben Gurion sleeping in a conference; we see his loves; we see him narrate, through images, his memoirs.

Bat-Adam, a renowned stage and screen actress, also has managed to accomplish a celluloid feat for those who enjoy simply made love stories. She's coaxed delicious performances out of her lead actors, and has crafted a fresh and passionate film. The action is agile, and the sharp cuts between sequences create a dynamic succession of events, which are contrasted with quiet shots of characters telling their own stories. Some of these include tales of love's madness, of an extraordinary passion that allows one to give up a lover to someone else as proof of their depth of emotion. The script is witty and moves graciously through unconventional passages, making it a real modernist romance. Nina's search ends in an airport, where dreams on film turn to flesh and bones. -- Sergio Giral


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