The Miami Jewish Film Festival returns this month with an exciting and progressive lineup, punctuated by spotlights on women and first-time filmmakers, live music performances, and other events. It'll be impossible to catch all 80 films during the fest's two-week run. So New Times film critics Juan Antonio Barquin and Hans Morgenstern have narrowed their picks to these four standouts.
Transit. The ghosts of our past are often present in Christian Petzold’s films, regardless of the period in which they're set. Transit, his latest work, is a sobering tale of what it’s like to live as a refugee, being as invisible as you can while still floating through a world that loathes you.
Adapted from the novel of the same name, this story of a man running from a fascist regime and assuming identities to survive World War II is transposed to a space that exists in both every time and no time at all. Every facet of the film's production, from costumes to sets, feels timeless. By refusing to ground it in any one era, Petzold makes Transit a universal story, one that’s all the more terrifying in its understanding that refugee struggles are not limited to any one period.
Georg, played by Franz Rogowski, is a blank slate of a man, the perfect ghost upon whom audiences can project their own existential fears and interests in helping others. He is no different from Marie (Paula Beer) or Richard (Godehard Giese) in that they are stuck, but where some have purpose in what they want and need, he has no true destination. There’s a disaffected tone to the narration that punctures the air, but don’t let that betray the truly affecting tale Petzold is telling. 6 p.m. Monday, January 14, at Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $13 to $14. — Juan Antonio Barquin
The Waldheim Waltz. It’s difficult not to note the timely quality of Ruth Beckermann’s documentary about former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's political campaign to become Austria’s president in 1986. The manner in which a politician can pander to beliefs shared among his supporters will feel familiar to observers of Trump’s rise. That Waldheim’s past includes connections to atrocities wrought by Nazis in the Balkans should not be diminished, yet there is no doubt Beckermann wishes to speak beyond that moment in history. Her German voice-over narrative has a reflective quality all too aware of familiar patterns. However, Beckermann keeps the visuals of the film — Austria’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film — entirely in its era by using only vintage footage.
The Waldheim Waltz is presented in the 4:3 format of the box TV screen of that time, which gives the sensation of peering through a window into the past. The film is a collection of campaign speeches, press conferences, talk shows, news reports, and interviews from various countries, including the United States. Beckermann also includes scenes she shot on black-and-white video cassette while participating in protests against Waldheim.
The filmmaker leaves in mundane moments such as World Jewish Congress members' stern introductions of themselves before they reveal incriminating documents uncovered by a historian. Beckermann apologizes for her shaky camera at the protests. Though these might seem incidental, they speak to our shared humanity. Nationalism is a terrible thing — sometimes we are bonded by not only pride but also victimhood. As Beckermann notes, Austria’s role as Germany’s “first victim” in Hitler’s plan to conquer Europe plays more of an empowering role than one might think. It’s a prescient film about a bygone time that shows hateful divisions in politics is nothing new. Southeast U.S. premiere 7 p.m. Monday, January 14, at Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $13 to $14. — Hans Morgenstern
Red Cow. The complications of growing up queer within a religious community isn’t an unfamiliar tale. It’s often dramatized for the purpose of tragedy, but good filmmakers can explore that internal divide without leaning hard into trauma. Like Desiree Akhavan’s recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Red Cow is a startlingly honest depiction of what it feels like to exist as queer within a faith-based community when your own faith is lacking or nonexistent.
With her debut feature film, Tsivia Barkai Yacov provides an intimate glance into the life of Benny (Avigail Kovari), the teenage daughter of a radical religious man who believes a newborn red cow is a sign of a new messiah. Yacov’s decision to drop the viewer deep into this religious community without stopping to explain anything might deter some, but using Benny as a rational point of focus in an increasingly irrational world works wonders.
There’s an immediacy to the way Yacov focuses on Benny’s budding sexuality, shooting moments of sensuality with eroticism and care. Benny is a teen through and through, and Kovari deftly handles her scenes with heft as well as those where she’s simply smoking or swimming with friends. Better yet, the interactions between Benny and Yael (Moran Rosenblatt) are a mixture of frank and sweet, flowing between the highs of reading poetry and kissing in bed to the lows of harming oneself with inner turmoil and worrying that someone has noticed one's relationship. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 17, at Miami Beach JCC, 4221 Pine Tree Dr., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $13 to $14. — Juan Antonio Barquin
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Leto (Summer). In the '70s, pop music underwent a revolution fueled by rebels such as David Bowie and the Sex Pistols. It was about using groundbreaking music to break taboos. It was antiestablishment, and it upset the status quo. You probably know how that music affected American culture. Now imagine how that music would fare behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union. Would you believe there was indeed a state-sponsored rock scene in '80s-era Leningrad where young musicians idolized Lou Reed and T. Rex? In 1981, the KGB oversaw something called the Leningrad Rock Club, where audiences were not allowed to stand and the musicians' lyrics had to be approved before being performed.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov's Leto (Summer) follows the love triangle of real-life musicians Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), and Mike’s wife Natalia Naumenko (Irina Starshenbaum). Naumenko's memoirs provided inspiration for the script, which early on is noted to be mostly fictional despite being based on true legends of Russian music who died too soon. You'll see clearly that it's fiction during expressive musical numbers on public transportation featuring everyday Russians singing songs such as Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” while animation scribbled onto the images as if etched on celluloid heightens the unreality further.
The artistic embellishments don’t end there. The film is an ecstatic mix of wide-screen black-and-white and tightly framed 16mm. Musical numbers pass in fantasia, often capped by a character named Skeptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) holding a sign reading, “This never happened.” It speaks to the power of music as expression that is still oppressed in Russia today. Serebrennikov, a director of experimental theater in Moscow, was arrested while shooting the final scenes of the movie and remains under house arrest. Southeast U.S. premiere 7 p.m. Wednesday, January 23, at Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $13 to $14. — Hans Morgenstern
Miami Jewish Film Festival. Thursday, January 10, through Thursday, January 24, at various venues. Single-screening tickets cost $14 and festival passes cost $295 via miamijewishfilmfestival.org.