Jewish films for everybody

There's universal appeal in this year's Jewish Film Festival

click to enlarge ON CALL: Juggling romance and hair appointments in You're So Pretty. - Courtesy Jewish Film Festival
Courtesy Jewish Film Festival
ON CALL: Juggling romance and hair appointments in You're So Pretty.

Film festival season keeps on keeping on. This week, it's the 11th Annual Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival, presenting 18 films from March 14—25 at Muvico Baywalk and Channelside Cinemas — and, as the unavoidable cliché goes, there really is a little something for everyone.

As in previous years, you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the movies shown at TBJFF, an event that strives to show films that connect on a universal level, regardless of whether they're dramas or comedies or something in between. TBJFF movies always touch to some degree upon aspects of Jewish life and culture, both here and around the world, but there's nothing in any these films that would compel a Gentile viewer to bring along someone of the Hebraic persuasion to serve as translator.

This year's line-up includes films from France, Germany, Canada, America and, of course, Israel. Interestingly, the higher-than-usual number of Israeli films seem on the surface to have little to do with the increasingly volatile political climate of the Middle East; most are noteworthy for their very ordinariness — romantic comedies, thrillers and other apolitical offerings — as if the filmmakers were working overtime to depict a society going about life as usual.

The festival kicks off on Wed., March 14 with a 7:30 p.m. program of short films at Tampa's Channelside Cinemas. Two of these shorts are freewheeling essays on contemporary Jewish identity, with The Tribe blending animation and archival footage (as well as a liberal use of Barbie dolls) and Not Another Jewish Movie assembling a lively mosaic of sound bites from an eclectic group of young San Franciscans. The remaining pair of shorts are Israeli films, The Substitute and Stand At Ease, the former depicting an army clerk's introduction to her less-than-stable replacement, the latter about a young Israeli torn between serving in the military and drumming in a rock band.

Thursday's double feature takes place on the other side of the Bay, at St Pete's Baywalk 20, home base for the festival's next few days. The loosely themed program begins with a 7:30 p.m. screening of The World Was Ours, a documentary on the once-thriving Polish-Jewish community of Vilna, followed at 9:30 by Wasserman, a bittersweet drama about an elderly man who renounced God after his family was wiped out in the Holocaust.

There are no screenings on Friday night (the festival closes up shop for the Jewish Sabbath), but the films continue on Saturday evening with another double bill at Baywalk. At 7:30 p.m. there's the French import Comme t'ye es Belle! (You're So Pretty), an amusing piece of fluff about the romantic ups and downs of a group of Jewish women running a beauty salon in Paris. There are few surprises as to who's going to wind up with whom (and the slow-mo montages set to bad French pop will tax anyone's patience), but the movie is sweet without being sugary and, much like its heroines, just spirited enough to make for an agreeably guilty pleasure. As for the second half of Saturday's program, I wasn't able to get an advance look at Out of Sight (9:30), an Israeli thriller about a blind girl unraveling the mystery of her cousin's death, but it has accumulated a substantial amount of good buzz.

Two more short films from Israel are on the bill for Sun., March 18, beginning with a 1 p.m. matinee of A Green Chariot, a study of a Russian emigrant attempting to assimilate into Israeli society, and Code Name Bayonet, a documentary purporting to clear up the facts Spielberg muddled in Munich. One more Israeli film follows at 3 p.m., with Janem Janem, a feature-length look at Tel Aviv's vibrant culture of Turkish, Russian and African foreign workers.

The festival resumes on Wed., March 21 with a 7:30 p.m. screening of Three Mothers at USF's Health Science Auditorium. An epic in the best and sometimes most absurd sense (years pass via segues such as a character wheezing at his daughter's wedding, then turning up dead in the next scene), Three Mothers plays hopscotch through six decades in the lives of three Egyptian-born, Israeli-raised sisters as they find romance, pursue dreams and engage in all manner of secrets and lies in what amounts to an engaging, up-market soap opera. Lots of groovy, pop-lounge musical interludes, too. Director Dina Zvi-Riklis will be on hand at the screening to take questions from the audience.

Beginning on Thurs., March 22, the festival moves over to Channelside, starting with The Ritchie Boys (7:30 p.m.), a documentary about German-Jewish refugees fighting against the Nazis. There's another break for the Jewish Sabbath on Fri., March 23, and then things fire up again on Saturday evening with one of the festival's highlights, Blues by the Beach (7:30).

This acclaimed feature started out as a documentary on everyday life in Israel but quickly mutated into something entirely different when a couple of suicide bombers blew up the Tel Aviv bar the filmmakers had been focusing on — a convivial hang-out called Mike's Place, where young Jews, Arabs and Anglos happily coexisted and where "no politics" had always been the number one rule. Blues by the Beach is a quietly devastating document and particularly stunning in that, after Paradise Now and so many other movies acclaimed for "humanizing" terrorists, here is that most rare of all filmic creatures — a movie that dares show us that the victims are human, too.

Saturday's schedule concludes with a 9:30 p.m. program of two more short films from Israel — Cheftzi, about a radio talk host who winds up regretting her own romantic advice, and Fish Out of Water, a pleasant but predictable romantic comedy about a goofy Argentinean emigrant gaga over his Hebrew teacher. It's appealing but basically disposable fare, although the Israeli local color and cultural nuances make it worth a look.

The highlight of Sunday, the festival's final day, is A Love to Hide (1 p.m.), a handsomely produced French production that begins dangerously top-heavy with hot buttons and sacred cows — The Holocaust! Forbidden same-sex love! Brother versus brother! — but that eventually simmers down and comes together in very satisfying ways. We get Jean, a gay Frenchman in Nazi-occupied Paris who attempts to save the life of a young Jewish girl named Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah loves Jean (even though she's quite aware he's gay), Jean's low-life brother has the hots for Sarah, various minor characters hunger for both of them, and Jean's fondness for the boys remains as closely guarded a secret as Sarah's religion.

The film crams an awful lot of material, both sociological and soap-opera-esque, into too tight a narrative space, while coming off a touch over-eager to parallel oppressed people of all stripes. (What is Jean, after all, if not a mensch? And can Sarah really be anything other than a gay man stuck in a Jewess' body?) Still, the film's characters breathe in a way that transcends messages, and A Love to Hide ultimately wins us over with insight, heart and sheer filmmaking chops. It's just one highlight among many in what promises to be a very good year for this long-running film festival..