The diversity is breathtaking. This year's Miami Jewish Film Festival sprawls with four venues featuring a batch of motion pictures that seem to cover everything Jewish under the sun. Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust and Heaven, klezmer and ska, ambitious masterpieces, family dramas, slapstick comedies, and earnest documentaries add up to a movie feast you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy. Even in a field crowded with promise, however, one picture stands out.
It is called Fateless (2005, directed by Lajos Koltai, in Hungarian with English subtitles), and it is immensely moving, a work of ineffable sadness and improbable joy. Set for national release immediately following the festival and already adored by critics and audiences around the world, Koltai's movie is based on the autobiographical novel by Imre Kertész, who also wrote the screenplay. The tale of one teenager surviving the Holocaust may seem obscenely familiar, yet the telling is as original as it is necessary. In awarding Kertész the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, the Swedish Academy cited the Hungarian Holocaust survivor "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history." And it is the force of history in all its horrifying epic contradictions that drenches Kertész's film adaptation.
Gyuri Koves, Kertész's alter ego, is only fourteen years old when he is pulled off a bus in Budapest and sent to Auschwitz and then to Birkenau. "I was beginning to grasp the simple secret of my existence," his serene voice-over narration tells, "that I could be killed anywhere, anytime." Eventually, not only after liberation but also significantly after being thrown into the different hell of communism in Hungary, our hero learns simply "to accept any argument for being able to live." This portrait of innocence brutalized is itself brutally honest.
Miami Jewish Film Festival 2006
Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr, Miami Beach; Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami, Memorial Bldg, Coral Gables; Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal Mall, 3701 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach.
Directed by Ellen Wedner. Presented January 21-29 by the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Studies; 888-585-FILM.
Elsewhere in the festival, variety rules. Not everything was available for review, including promising fare like Petite Jerusalem and Stalin's Last Purge. An evening of "Shorts on South Beach" sounds intriguing, with little movies about Mel Gibson's Jesus film, as well as something called Mah-Jong: The Tiles That Bind, which sounds like a hoot. Here are some of the festival highlights:
Go for Zucker! (2004, directed by Dani Levy, in German with English subtitles; Miami premiere): As if to balance the depth and seriousness of Fateless, the festival offers some delicious international froth. Go for Zucker! (Alles auf Zucker!) once again proves the richness of German film today, also surprising in its portrayal both of Jewish life in Berlin and of the contradictions that followed the miracle of 1989. After the unification, a former East German TV sportscaster, reduced to gambling and billiards for a living, suddenly has the chance to inherit some money. The catch is that he has to make peace with his Orthodox West German capitalist brother, and he has to sit shiva at the same time as a major billiards tournament that he simply must win. The gay-friendly madcap comedy from the producers of Goodbye, Lenin and Run, Lola, Run has a tasty comic turn by Sebastian Blomberg (a bona fide heartthrob among the new generation of German actors), cast against type and sporting a Hasidic beard, as our hero's very conservative nephew.
Only Human (2004, directed by Teresa de Pelegri and Dominic Harari, in Spanish with English subtitles): Even better than Go for Zucker, this Spanish comedy is the festival's funniest, arriving as a sort of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? with shades of Almodvar and a contemporary twist: A Jewish daughter who has been living in Barcelona returns to Madrid to introduce her family to her Israeli fiancé it's just that the passport may be Israeli, but the man is Palestinian. This is a very, very cool dark comedy, with the added attraction of the indomitable Norma Aleandro as the mother.
Local Call (2004, directed by Arthur Joffe, in French with English subtitles): Though perhaps a little too whimsical for its own good, this tight little French comedy may well turn out to be one of the festival's sweetest hits. The premise is nothing if not original: A harried astronomer with a pill of a wife is henpecked into cleaning up his office, finds a box of his dead father's belongings, and gives away the old man's cashmere coat to a homeless man outside. Next thing he knows, he's getting very expensive collect calls from Heaven the old guy wants his coat back! Don't ask. The surrealism is pulled off, in the best Amélie style, with a straight face. There are terrific cameos by Michel Serrault as the father's voice on the phone, and by the always riveting Tchéky Karyo as a slimy banker. And Sergio Castellitto's performance, as a man quietly drowning in nostalgia, alone makes this picture a must-see.
Metallic Blues (2004, directed by Danny Verete, in Hebrew and German with English subtitles; Miami premiere): A hit at last year's Jerusalem International Film Festival, this one promises a new twist on your basic buddy movie when memories of the Holocaust intrude as two Israeli lugs try to make a profit shipping a 1985 Lincoln Continental limo to Germany. Starring Moshe Ivgy and Avi Kushner, one of Israel's top stand-up comics.
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Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2005, directed by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh, in English; South Florida premiere): Aristotle tells us that, simply put, the life of virtue is simply better, that someone full of love will be happier than someone full of hate. Forgiveness, in that case, may well be the road to hard-earned happiness and perhaps even peace for someone who has suffered the unforgivable. Eva Kor and her twin sister Miriam were sent to Auschwitz and became subjects of Josef Mengele's unspeakable experiments. In adulthood, Eva chooses to forgive. Forgiving Dr. Mengele broaches this deeply disturbing, morally challenging subject, and the local premiere promises to be fascinating, with Eva Kor herself appearing for a postscreening discussion.
Checking Out (2004, directed by Jeff Hare, in English; Miami premiere): This comic twist on King Lear stars Peter Falk as an old actor planning a final curtain for his 90th birthday. The indie picture boasts David Paymer, Laura San Giacomo, and Judge Reinhold as Falk's children, and the director already has been hailed at the Palm Beach International Film Festival.
Awake, Zion (2004, directed by Monica Haim, in English; South Florida premiere): Hasidic Jews and Rastafarians who knew? Miamian Monica Haim, a nice Jewish girl who loves reggae, explores unexpected affinities such as those between klezmer and ska, a Reggae Passover CD, and the annual Sukka Jam. Preceded by a world-premiere screening of Avery Pack's short Artifact.
Looking for Victoria: An Argentine Story (2004, directed by Tom Vriens, in Spanish with English subtitles): Sadly, inevitably, tales of those who disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship have become a staple of the Jewish Film Festival and force us to confront the unsettling fact that the alliance of fascism and anti-Semitism did not end in 1945. In Tom Vriens's harrowing documentary, Adriana Victoria Lewi tries to piece together the true tale of her parents, who were taken away from her forever in 1978.