Our film critic sizes up the year in Jewish-themed cinema.
Contrary to all the rather tedious doomsayers, film is not dead.
But 2012 did turn out to be a disappointing year in terms of the overall quality of the new releases that found their way to New York City. But you wouldn’t know that if your beat is Jewish-themed films. The masterpieces may not have been thick on the ground, but the average quality was surprisingly high, and I can look back on the year with some satisfaction. Here are seven Jewish films (listed alphabetically) that opened theatrically this year. Each is well worth revisiting either in the privacy of your home or, if you are lucky, in a movie theater.
“Almayer’s Folly” — Chantal Akerman’s languid and mysterious adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel seems to be a cinematic expression of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Akerman is a Jew, a woman, a sometime lesbian and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Of her mother’s tattooed number and the dark silence that accompanied it, I have written, “It was ... etched as indelibly in her subconscious as it was on her mother’s skin, and that number and all it meant has been a deeply buried reality in Akerman’s films, even a movie that never mentions Jews or the Shoah.” Faced with a different set of oppressors and identities, she approaches “Almayer’s Folly” as another extended exercise in the enunciation of difference. Where Conrad’s focus is on the foolish and feckless dreams of Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), a failed trader stranded in a decaying mansion in the Dutch East Indies, Akerman is more concerned with the gradual alienation of his beloved daughter Nina (Aurora Marion). While Conrad sees Almayer’s renunciation, Ackerman sees the daughter’s defiance as the story’s heroic act.
“5 Broken Cameras” — Emad Burnat is a Palestinian freelance cameraman and photographer who bought a camera when his fourth son, Gibreel, was born in 2005. Since he bought that first camera, with no other intention than documenting the growing years of his youngest child, he gradually became an informal historian for his village, Bil’in. When the small village found itself pressed back by rapidly encroaching development from the settlements, and by a separation barrier that claimed much of the land including olive groves that had been cultivated by the local population for generations, Burnat found himself not only covering the story but living it as well.
Like other filmmakers who specialize in documentaries that straddle the line between diary and history, Burnat frequently finds himself torn between the urge to keep filming and the needs of the people around him. Over the course of the half-decade covered by the film, we see him growing in technical skill and self-assurance while he grapples with the difficulty of maintaining a strategy of non-violent protest when repeatedly met with force. It is this last dilemma that gives the film much of its power, as one by one, Burnat has five cameras destroyed, including at least two that were literally shot out of his hands.
“Footnote” — Joseph Cedar’s rise through the ranks of world cinema has been extraordinary, albeit little remarked upon. In only four feature films, the writer-director has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in Israeli film and, on the strength of his latest work, he stands up to comparisons with any of his contemporaries. “Footnote” continues the violent claustrophobia of “Beaufort” in the unlikeliest of settings: the bitter comedy of dueling academics. Pitting a father and son against one another, Cedar creates a kind of controlled emotional frenzy that is, if anything, even more disturbing than the brutality of war in his previous film. It’s funny, sure, but the laughs catch in your throat and try to strangle you. It’s impossible to predict what he’ll do next, but it is bound to be interesting.
“Hitler’s Children” — The Torah enjoins us to honor our parents. But if your family members were monstrous criminals who killed hundreds of thousands, even millions, what is your responsibility? As Katrin Himmler, Heinrich Himmler’s grand-niece, says in the new documentary film “Hitler’s Children,” “At what point does it become impossible to love those parents?” The film, directed by Israeli documentarian Chanoch Ze’evi, is as cunningly structured as a good thriller, and just as taut. Ze’evi moves deftly between five descendants of infamous Nazis, parceling out revelations judiciously. Aided in no small part by the crisp editing of Arik Lahav Leibovitz, “Hitler’s Children” is a much needed and too brief look at the Shoah from a different point of view.
“The Law in These Parts” — Nine years after his last film, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz is back with this mordant portrait of the development of the Israeli courts that administer something like justice in the Occupied Territories. Interviewing the men who created and run that court system, Alexandrowicz offers a meditation on the nature of justice and, perhaps more importantly now, on the issues that plague the Jewish state after 45 years of occupation. Merely by presenting such questions, “The Law in These Parts” draws attention to the terrible disparity between Israeli courts and the occupation courts. Alexandrowicz’s rather dry delivery of his narration and the methodical, analytical and unemotional tone of his interviewees create a stark dialectic between law and justice.
“The Loneliest Planet” — Like her one previous feature, “Day Night Day Night” (2006), Julia Loktev’s new film is about a woman in extremis, facing unusual pressures in unfamiliar surroundings. Where the previous film was about a would-be female suicide bomber dropped into the muddle of Midtown Manhattan, “Planet” focuses much of its attention on Nica (Hani Furstenberg) who is hiking through Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains with her fiancé Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Dato, a guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). When Alex reacts inappropriately in a sudden moment of peril, it drives a wedge between the couple that resonates throughout the rest of the film. Ultimately, Alex and Nica are people who are not really at home anywhere. But Loktev’s blending of the surreally beautiful but eerie Georgian landscapes and the emotional claustrophobia of the situation is compelling, even hypnotic. It’s a film of long silences and a vision of the world as an overwhelming presence that dwarves the humans who struggle through it.
“Off-White Lies” — Sometimes a film’s first few shots tell you almost everything you need to know. Consider the case of “Off-White Lies,” the 2011 directorial feature debut of Maya Kenig. In the film’s first shot we see a close-up of Libby (Elya Inbar), an adolescent girl dragging a suitcase and carefully carrying a potted plant across an air terminal, her face a mix of uncertainty and determination. Kenig cuts to an overhead shot that isolates the girl in the frame, surrounded by the unreadable space of the terminal’s featureless floor. A couple of shots later, we hear, then see Shaul (Gur Bentwich), her father, a boyish figure in a Hawaiian shirt, playfully arguing with a cab driver over parking. With striking economy, Kenig has conveyed to the audience the family dynamic that will dominate her film: the strange imbalance between the child mature beyond her 13 years and her feckless dreamer of a father. And Kenig, who was born in 1979, has announced herself as a filmmaker with self-assurance that belies her own relative youth.
“The Rabbi’s Cat” — What has been missing from the tidal wave of animated features released theatrically in the past decade is the anarchic wit of the great Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940s and ’50s. Somehow it is less than surprising that one of the rare examples of that kind of manic energy and total disregard for propriety comes from outside the U.S. Joan Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat” is precisely the kind of film that our homegrown animation directors seem incapable of making now — anarchic, energetic and funny. No sentimentality, no feel-good message, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is pure and hilarious mayhem and unbridled chaos.
Finally, four of the best films I saw in 2012 will have their theatrical premieres in the new year. Keep an eye out for “Fill the Void,” “The Gatekeepers,” “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” and “Yossi.”