Closing With A Bang At Annual Jewish Film Festival

Strong final-week offerings include a meditation on Jews and Poles, Amos Gitai’s latest and a documentary on Jews living under the Shah

01/14/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
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Note: This is the third of three articles on this year’s N.Y. Jewish Film Festival.

They truly saved the best for last. In a strong lineup of new films and restorations, this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival closes with three of its very strongest offerings — a beautiful, mysterious and austere meditation on the barbed relationship between Jews and Poles, Amos Gitai’s most accessible film in years, and a smart documentary on a little-known aspect of Israeli-Iranian relations.

This year’s closing night film, “Ida,” is Pawel Pawlikowski’s fifth feature. The Warsaw-born filmmaker made his previous films (and numerous television documentaries) in the UK, but for this latest work he went home for the first time in his career. Like his best-known early films, “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love” Pawlikowski’s new work centers on the state of mind of a young woman faced with an unexpected fork in her personal road. Like the other two films, “Ida” draws us into the protagonist’s subjective world slowly, inexorably, with subtle modulations of tone achieved mainly through his rigorous visual style. “Ida” is a film whose power can be felt moment by moment — Pawlikowski’s control is that formidable — but it is the cumulative effect of its slow unwinding that gives the film an unholy force. To be blunt, it is a masterpiece, a work of concision, compression and restraint, great formal elegance and emotional acuity.

“Ida” is an austere work, filmed in starkly beautiful black and white, shot by Pawlikowski’s long-time cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, with Lukasz Zal. The film was made in the old-fashioned 1:33-1 aspect ratio, creating an image that is almost a square and that looks awkwardly unfamiliar to contemporary audiences (although it stood filmmakers in good stead for most of the first sixty years of the medium’s history). We are in a convent, somewhere in Poland in 1962, and, enshrouded in a mist snow flurries, a group of nuns are slowly, somberly replacing a statue of Jesus.

One of those nuns, Sister Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), is a novitiate, shortly to take her vows; what she doesn’t know is that her only surviving relative, a distant aunt, is about to overturn all the certainties in her life by revealing that she was a hidden child named Ida Lebenstein, the Jewish daughter of a woman who died in the camps. Wanda, her aunt (Agata Kulesza), is a magistrate, at least superficially at ease in the middle ranks of the Communist regime; in reality, she is a self-loathing alcoholic with few certainties of her own. The pair will journey across rural Poland seeking the burial place of Anna/Ida’s mother, Wanda’s sister.

Although it partakes of some of the tropes of the road movie, “Ida” is no comedy-drama of mismatched partners redeeming one another. Filmed almost entirely with a stationary camera and off-center framing, the film skillfully disrupts the viewer’s equilibrium wrong-foots an audience skillfully, leaving us as devoid of certainty as the two women at its center. With its powerful sense of the spirituality behind ritual, “Ida” may be the most Bressonian film I’ve seen since the great Robert Bresson died, and it is without a doubt going to be one of the best films of 2014. (Happily, it has an American distributor and will be opening theatrically in the spring.)

One expects formal rigor from a film by Amos Gitai. Even when his films don’t succeed on other levels, they are always elegantly structured if occasionally obscure. So it is hardly surprising that visually his new film “Ana Arabia” is as gracefully worked out as an algorithm. Fortunately, it is also one of his most emotionally accessible films in many years. Gitai frequently is a cold director, one who makes films driven primarily by his intellect and his political/aesthetic ideas. There are exceptions, of course, and this appears to be one of them.

The jumping-off point for the narrative is a true story that ran in the European press about an Auschwitz survivor who married an Arabic man and lived happily in a small enclave in Jaffa where Jews and Muslims co-existed amicably in poverty. Gitai folds in the stories of some of the families he has met in making his documentaries, and adds that of a young journalist, Yael (Yuval Scharf), sent to interview the husband and other family members at the woman’s death, as a point of entry into the story for the audience. He assembled a cast of familiar faces, without defining their ethnicity (Yussuf Abu Warda as the widower, Sarah Adler and Assi Levy as daughter and daughter-in-law, Uri Gavriel as a talkative neighbor), emphasizing the common experience of a tiny community.

But what makes “Ana Arabia” work, besides the splendid interaction of his cast, is Gitai’s decision to push farther in a direction he has been going for many years, shooting the entire film in a single, 81-minute take. This is less the bravura technical display that Alexander Sokurov flashes in “Russian Ark,” and more a low-key showcase for the emotional currents generated by the actors, and a raw statement about the passing of time. The film becomes a startlingly contemplative exercise that seems almost a rebuke to the beautiful frenzy of “Carmel,” his previous work. “Ana Arabia” achieves a striking calm every time one of the inhabitants of the small enclave is speaking to Yael, and the way that Gitai and cinematographer Giora Bejach negotiate the complicated, interlocking series of courtyards and alleyways is frequently breathtaking in a slow-motion way. The result is something of an oddity in Gitai’s filmography, a film that takes time to observe and appreciate something as elemental as the fall of fading sunlight on a human face or the sound of the wind in the trees.

Dan Shadur’s hour-long documentary, “Before the Revolution,” takes a close look at a little-known story from recent Israeli history: what happened to the thriving community of Israeli businessmen, technicians, diplomats and spies — and their families — who lived in Iran under the last Shah when the 1979 revolution swept him out of power. Shadur makes apt use of home movies, presenting an idyllic memory-image of the families’ lives in a country in which they were regarded with a significant degree of enthusiasm by the powerful, and guaranteed a substantial lifestyle by circumstance.

More important, he has done an admirable job of securing interviews of startling candor with many of the key players in that community, including former Mossad operatives and Uri Lubrani, who was the Israeli ambassador to Iran for some of the years in question. Few of them pull any punches, talking frankly about the Shah’s secret police, the use of torture to suppress dissent and the fact that “we thought we were helping them . . . helping the Persian people.” Regrettably, as one of them concludes, “We lived in a bubble.”

The 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through Jan. 23. Most of the films will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.), with other events taking place at the Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 W. 65th St.). For complete information, go to www.NYJFF.org.

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