February 21, 2006

Jewish Film Fest reflects a wide range of Jewish issues

One of the great challenges for Jewish artists seems to be that they must remind people that there is no single Jewish perspective. Christians can’t find consensus on issues like birth control and gay rights, and Muslims struggle with the role of secular institutions, so why should Jews be of one mind? Unsurprisingly, the Jewish community is divided over some of its most fundamental elements, from the nature of the Torah to the role of Israel.

There are traditional theological and geographic divisions. Orthodox Jews, who were best represented in the further reaches of Eastern Europe and Central Asia until the foundation of Israel, tend to adhere to a more strict interpretation of the Torah and Jewish law. Conservatives with family histories in Central and Western Europe encourage a more equal balance between secular institutions like science and politics and Jewish faith and community. And practitioners of Reform Judaism encourage an individualistic approach to Jewish theology, frequently trying to disentangle the cultural and ethnic elements from religious ones.

And, of course, there is the issue of Israel. Religious Zionists insist that Israel is the land promised to them in the Torah. Others see it as a nation-state, no different than France or Russia, whose responsibility is to ensure the safety of its citizens. And yet others are deeply critical of the foundation of Israel and its policies in the “occupied territories.”

This year’s Louisville Jewish Film Festival, now in its eighth remarkable year, will highlight these essential divisions, giving non-Jews an insight into the diversity of Jewish religious and political thought.

“The Rashevski’s Tango” (Feb 25, 7 p.m.) kicks off the festival. It follows a family of highly assimilated Belgian Jews who are shocked when the family’s matriarch dies, leaving a request for an Orthodox burial. This reunites an extended family of Jews in varying stages of assimilation, from cousins who have married non-Jews to an Israeli rabbi. Brought together, the family members have to ask themselves what it means to be Jewish and if their identity can include them all.

“Go For Zucker” (Feb 26, 2 p.m.) is a comedy about Jaeckie Zucker, a non-practicing German Jew who wants his mother’s very considerable inheritance. But to get it, he has to reconcile with his brother, Samuel, an Orthodox Jew who grew up in East Germany. In an effort to make up, and make out like a bandit, he allows his brother and his sizeable family to move into his formerly swinging bachelor pad.

“Walk on Water” (Feb 26, 7 p.m.) follows Israeli intelligence agent Eyal, who is asked to get close to the family of a Nazi war criminal. Hoping they will tip him off to his target’s whereabouts, he poses as a tour guide for the German brother and sister. In some ways similar in tone to Spielberg’s “Munich,” Eyal’s experience leads him to question his assumptions about both his German targets and his role as an agent for an Israeli state that frequently resorts to assassination.

In even more murky territory is “The Ninth Day”(Feb 27, 7 p.m.), a German film based on the memoirs of the Luxembourgian priest Henri Kremer. After denouncing Nazi racial policies, he is imprisoned in Dachau only to be released on a nine-day furlough. On the outside, a young SS officer gives him an ultimatum; make the local Catholic Church change its stance on the Nazi regime or he and every Catholic priest he knows faces deportation. Mining similar ground as Costa-Gavras’ “Amen,” but with a less confrontational approach, “The Ninth Day” looks at the moral complexities of collaboration and especially of the difficult situation the Catholic Church found itself in during the Holocaust. It’s an issue that still divides both Jews and Catholics.

Much less controversial than the other movies of the Jewish Film Festival is the tragic romance of “Le Grand Role” (Feb. 28, 7 p.m.), a film about a French-Jewish actor, Maurice, who might finally get his big break when an American director travels to Paris to do an all-Yiddish version of “Merchant of Venice.” When he doesn’t get the role, he hasn’t the heart to tell his deathly ill wife, so he concocts an elaborate lie about his success in movies to keep her spirits up.