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You Don't Have to Be Jewish

Fare at the festival is intriguing and decidedly international

Let the lady gloat.

Ellen Wedner, director of the 2005 Miami Jewish Film Festival, has a point when she boasts of this year's "wonderful festival filled with a huge diversity of film topics." She's not kidding. With pictures from Israel, Argentina, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Uganda, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States, with documentaries, comedies, and thrillers, with everything from Swedish Jews who love Nintendo to British Jews who love cricket, from Mossad spies to French actors and Russian poets, from first-time directors to wunderkinder from Argentina and Israel, from old people with heartbreaking memories to young people with life's surprises just ahead, the latest edition of the popular festival is the single most international film event South Florida film buffs will experience this year.

"I strive to bring a unique and varied selection," says Wedner, "films you won't usually see on a Saturday afternoon at the movies."

The festival is definitely intriguing, with a Florida premiere, not available for preview but decidedly promising, of Joycelyn Behar's Cuba: Beyond the Pearl of the Antilles. There will be assorted seminars, parties, and even something called "Hiding and Seeking," preceded by the short A Tropical Yiddishland Called South Beach. Here's a sampling of other movie highlights:

Le Grand Role -- Can you say meshugge with a French accent? The miracle of Steve Suissa's preposterously loopy 2003 romantic comedy is that--for all its irritating details and maudlin tragic twists--it succeeds as an exciting introduction to a new generation of French actors and especially to a real discovery: Stephane Freiss. Peter Coyote, in a bizarre cameo, plays a famous director out to shoot a film version of The Merchant of Venice, in Yiddish. Of course he casts the movie in that bastion of Yiddish culture, Paris. Don't even ask. Freiss plays the hot thesp who almost lands the role of Shylock, then spends the rest of the picture pretending, in order to please his wife (who is dying of cancer), that he got the part. Echoes of everything from Day for Night to Goodbye Lenin are a bit too obvious in Suissa's picture, but it's difficult to turn away when Freiss lights up the screen. In French with English subtitles. March 19, 7:30 p.m., Gusman, followed by Opening Night Gala in the Alfred Dupont Building.

Walk on Water -- An adult thriller, complete with complex characters, murky ethical waters, and no-nonsense action sequences, probably the festival's most successful bid for mass appeal. The smoldering Lior Ashkenazi, Israel's answer to Clive Owen, plays a Mossad hit man on the prowl for an old Nazi who might be coming out of hiding for a surprise birthday party near Berlin. The fact that the hunky agent himself might be coming out in a different way, as he gets close to his target's gay grandson (played with disarming abandon by Knut Berger), is just one of the possibilities left discreetly unanswered in Eytan Fox's 2004 movie, which would not be out of place in a gay and lesbian film festival. This has already won plaudits from the Berlin International Film Festival and the Israeli Film Academy. The soundtrack is a killer Europop megamix of Esther Ofarim, Telepopmusic, Gigliola Cinquetti, and Bruce Springsteen. In Hebrew and German with English subtitles. March 22, 8:00 p.m., Regal.

Wondrous Oblivion -- Paul Morrison's gentle 2003 film manages to combine issues of Jewish identity, British anti-Semitism, racial strife, and love of the game of cricket, in a coming-of-age story that is as devastating as it is sweet. Young David Wiseman is not a terribly good athlete, but he would dearly love to be on his snotty school's cricket team. When neighbors from hell, who happen to be black, move in next door to his home, David finds an unlikely cricket coach in the middle-age Mr. Samuels, played with relish by Delroy Lindo. As the faux-Nino Rota score gives way to seductive ska sounds, the portrait of London in the 1950s is colorful and evocative, Morrison's celebration of cultural diversity as subtle as it is winning. In English. March 23, 6:30 p.m., the Regal; March 27, 3:00 p.m., Sunrise Cinemas.

Asesino -- Florida premiere of Nurit Kedar's unsettling 2002 documentary about the 3000 young Jews who disappeared during Argentina's fascist regime in the 1970s. Testimony from Holocaust survivors, who now must endure the death of their children at the hands of neo-Nazis in the New World, is just one of many harrowing details in this shocking picture. The documentary raises disturbing questions about not only Argentina's appalling amnesty laws and U.S. complicity in aiding the Argentine generals, but also Israel's own refusal to intervene and the sale of Israeli arms to Argentina. With cruel clarity Kedar exposes how, at a time when saving Soviet Jews from communist repression was grabbing all the media attention, saving Argentine Jews from fascist torture and murder was not a high priority on anyone's list. A Grand Prize winner at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In Spanish and Hebrew with English subtitles. March 23, 8:45 p.m., the Regal.

Bit by Bit -- Every festival has to have a turkey, and although this one might be kosher, it's definitely a turkey nevertheless. Pontus Klange and Jonathan Metzger's 2002 comedy tells of a young man obsessed with video games who neglects his girlfriend and other loved ones. He may find redemption in a Nintedo championship in Los Angeles -- if only he can get out of the family seder and make it to the crucial game. Best to pass over this one. In Swedish with English subtitles. March 23, 7:30 p.m., Sunrise Cinemas.

Paper Snow -- Lina and Scala Chaplin's comedy really takes the kugel for originality: Mix a horny young poet, a hornier if older actress, a very nervous hand-held camera, and a Soviet-Jewish theatrical troupe touring Palestine in 1933. The title refers to a stage effect, but there is nothing stagy about the magic this unusual movie conjures: There is real life under all the paper snow. In Hebrew and Russian with English subtitles. March 21, 8:20 p.m., Cosford Cinema.

18 J -- Perhaps the festival's most beautiful movie. 18 J is a sad and strikingly original 2004 memorial to a notorious act of anti-Semitic terrorism, the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires. The concept is simple, bringing together short films on the theme of terrorism by some of Argentina's most gifted filmmakers: Daniel Burman, Adrian Caetano, Lucia Cedron, Alejandro Dorai, Alberto Lecchi, Marcelo Schapces, Carlos Sorin, Juan B. Stagnaro, Adrian Suar, and Mauricio Wainrot. The slices of life are devastating, from an older couple getting ready to visit their daughter in Israel to a small Indian village where the tragedy unfolds on television as a little girl asks, "What is a Jew?" As of yet the terrorists have not been prosecuted, and the indictment this movie represents is persuasive and powerful. March 20, 8:00 p.m., and March 27, 1:00 p.m., Sunrise Cinemas.


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