Humor In Unexpected Places

Polanski’s dark wit and a bleakly funny IDF tale on tap at this year’s Tribeca festival.

04/17/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 
NYU chaplains Imam Khalid Latif, left, and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna in “Of Many.”  Samuel Adiv Cohen
NYU chaplains Imam Khalid Latif, left, and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna in “Of Many.” Samuel Adiv Cohen

Note: This is the first of two stories on this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

There are many ways to be a Jewish filmmaker, just as there are many ways to be a Jew. If there is one thing that would seem to unite most Jewish directors working in the field (and some non-Jews who frequently visit Jewish themes) it might be humor. The humor may pop up in unexpected places or come from unlikely artists, but it’s there just the same. Consider some of the new films on offer in the first week of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Although he has made comedies before, Roman Polanski is not someone whose name jumps into your head when you’re looking for a laugh. His films are usually characterized by the dark paranoia of a director whose childhood was shredded by the Nazis, whose adult life has been blighted by the murder of his wife and his problems with the law. But there is an underlying sardonic wit at play in even his darkest work. After all, Polanski is a guy who made a thriller about an actor who gives his first-born child to Satan in exchange for better roles. So it is not really a shock to find Polanski partnering with American playwright David Ives, a free-flowing fountain of wit, for the film version of Ives’ play “Venus in Fur.”

In structure, “Venus” is a follow-up to Polanski’s previous feature film, “God of Carnage” (2011), which treated Yasmina Reza’s play with surprising fidelity, leaving its focus on four characters intact and resisting the urge to open up the piece in the interests of a decrepit idea of “the cinematic.” Like its predecessor (and Polanski’s earlier film of Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden”), the new film leaves the minimalist elements of the play unchanged, with only two characters, a theater director and writer Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) and Vanda, an actress (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife) meeting in a deserted theater where she has come to audition for his new production based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel.

Although Sacher-Masoch was a Catholic, he was also a vocal and ardent philo-Semite and he edited two collections of Jewish stories as well as his better-remembered ode to the sexual relationship that bears his name, masochism. One suspects that for a Jew like Polanski who grew up in Poland between in the late 1930s and the early 1960s, the tangled skeins of association between Sacher-Masoch’s religious upbringing, his ardent championing of Jewish causes and his chosen minority sexual identity all may have had some resonance. Certainly the passionate push-pull dialectic of dominance and submission at the heart of both the novel and Ives’ play have strange echoes of Jewish phrases like “the yoke of the mitzvot,” and of the tension between obedience to the Divine Will and the exercise of human choice that runs through Jewish thought.

Whatever their significance for Polanski, he has great fun playing with Ives’ richly wrought dialogue with its intricate shifts in register between 1880s decadence and 21st-century cool, between the sculpted theatricality of the play-within-the-film and the deliciously self-conscious natterings of his no-less-theatrical protagonists. Polanski stages the film as a cunning, often formally elegant jeux d’esprit, a technically ravishing series of extended jokes in which his two characters often circle one another like two planets held stubbornly in check by their gravitational fields. The result may be a minor work for the director, but it is great fun.

One might say the same of “Zero Motivation,” a first feature by Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie. Although its setting in a dead-end military post that is a graveyard for undistinguished careers and an unintended spur to highly original forms of goldbricking, recalls “Sergeant Bilko,” the film is a bleakly funny service comedy that owes more to “Catch-22” or “M*A*S*H.”

Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are best friends, NCOs assigned to the administrative office of this professional cul-de-sac, who spend most of their time playing Minesweeper on the office computers and scheming how to get transferred to someplace more appealing. Their superior officer, Rama (Shani Klein), has genuine aspirations to rise in the officer corps, but her deadbeat office staff is unlikely to be the wind that will lift her upward.

The film is structured as a series of three episodes focusing on Daffi’s increasingly desperate attempts to be sent to Tel Aviv, Zohar’s no-less-desperate search for someone to deflower her, and the ongoing collision between Zohar and the rest of the IDF, a battle that the army is bound to lose. Lavie depicts the base as a degrading cross between high school and a particularly dire summer camp, and her eye for the power of caste and the social slight is unerring. The film’s shape is actually more intricate than the tripartite structure might suggest, and the way in which the narrative loops in on itself is quite satisfying.

“70 Hester Street,” written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski, is one of the more appealing short films of the year thus far. Nozkowski’s parents are both artists and he grew up in the building whose address is the film’s title, home, in succession, to a synagogue, a bootlegger’s distillery and a raincoat factory. Now, after nearly a half-century, the family is leaving, and that radical departure engenders a rumination on the changing fortunes of the Lower East Side, the constant demographic shifts and their impact on the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. The film is charming, witty and quite handsome to look at and, like Nozkowski’s erstwhile home, redolent of the air of a long-since departed Jewish community.

By contrast, Linda G. Mills’ half-hour documentary “Of Many” is rooted in the turbulent present but offers a small ray of light and hope. Imam Khalid Latif and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna are both chaplains at NYU. The university has 2,000 Muslim students and 5,000 Jewish ones (the largest Jewish student population of any private university in the U.S., incidentally). One might imagine that this conjunction would be a recipe for open hostility and, in the wake of 9/11 it might well have become such. But Sarna and Latif came together to seek a way to ease tensions in the university community, creating with Mills and her executive producer Chelsea Clinton the Of Many Institute at NYU, a vehicle for developing multi-faith leadership on the campus and beyond. Focusing their efforts on disaster relief in the U.S., and directly involving their students in the work, the two chaplains have been effective bridge-builders. The film also is rife with unexpected humor, an outgrowth of the warm friendship of its two central figures.

The 2014 Tribeca Film Festival opens Wednesday, April 16, and runs through Sunday, April 27, all over the city. For more information, go to www.tribecafilm.com.

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