Let us sing the praises of Ronit Elkabetz.
The actress, writer and director is one of the featured guests at this year’s Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which opens on March 10, and her presence onscreen gives considerable life to several of the films in this year’s event.
Elkabetz made her first film appearance in 1990 in Daniel Wachsmann’s “The Appointed,” but for most of us it was her astonishing turn as the spurned lover in Dover Kosashvili’s “Late Marriage” 11 years later that impressed her on our cinematic consciousness. Since then, she has been a fixture in the Israeli cinema that makes its way here, and the inclusion in the festival of her first work as a writer-director in collaboration with her brother Shlomi, “To Take a Wife” (2004), is an eye-opener on several levels.
The duo’s second film, “Seven Days,” has been shown in New York several times, but that film was made four years later than “To Take a Wife” and is a sequel to it. (This is the kind of bizarre release pattern that gives film critics gray hair.) For a first feature, both written and directed by a team, even of siblings, “To Take a Wife” is an astonishingly assured work, a roller coaster that veers with a controlled wildness between stark melodrama and edgy black humor. At the heart of the film is Elkabetz’s performance as Viviane, who after 20 years of marriage to Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian), is clearly a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She taunts him, provokes him and insults him with increasing irrationality, yet when an old flame appears she tells that guy that she won’t leave her husband. Try to imagine a cross between Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence” and Barbara Stanwyck at her lachrymose, brassy best.
Viviane is a key character in Elkabetz’s filmography, a woman under so much pressure that the only question is how big the explosion will be, not if or when it will happen. It’s a part the actress responds to with such ferocity and enthusiasm, that she repeated the role four years later in the sequel. Viviane is a sister under the skin to most of Elkabetz’s best parts, from her worldly-wise, sardonic sandwich-stand owner in “The Band’s Visit” to the beaten-down working-class women of “Or (My Treasure)” and “Zion and His Brother,” which is having its American premiere in the festival.
Although she is top-billed in “Zion,” Elkabetz’ performance is a self-effacing one designed to throw light onto the two young actors, Reuven Badalov and Ofer Hayun, who play her sons. As in most of her other films, Elkabetz here is part of a neo-neorealist world, gritty and unhappy, with her sons chafing under her inconsistent parenting and simultaneously yearning for and rejecting any potential male role model. It’s a first feature for writer-director Eran Merav, and he elicits remarkably skilled and nuanced performances from the two young men and Lina Leyn, who plays a girl caught between the two brothers. The film is dark and brooding but effectively so.
Elkabetz is also the subject of a new documentary “Ronit Elkabetz: A Stranger in Paris,” directed by Nir Bergman (“Broken Wings” and the Israeli TV series “In Therapy), which will have its U.S. premiere in the festival.
Strong women are at the heart of many of the films in this year’s event. Although the crime thriller/revenge plot of “Five Brothers,” directed by Alexandre Arcady, is driven by the brothers mentioned in the title, the mother of this quintet, the luminous Francoise Fabien (best known here for the title role of Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s”) is one of the linchpins that holds the film together. It is a rickety and predictable concoction, centering on the return of the family’s black sheep (Vincent Elbaz), with half the Marseilles mob on his tail. As in most of Arcady’s films, there is a loving attention to the detail of Sephardic family life and observance that leavens the journeyman-like quality of the genre material.
You would have to look pretty hard to find a stronger woman than Yolande Gabai de Botton, the subject of “Yolande: An Unsung Heroine,” a new documentary by Dan Wolman (who is also represented by the New York premiere of an historical epic, “Valley of Strength”). Yolande was one of the most effective spies to serve Israel in Egypt during the 1940s, a clever and appealing woman who used her cover as a journalist to make contacts at the highest echelons of the Egyptian government. Wolman tells her story with style and wit, as befits the woman herself.
Style and wit are at the center of the festival’s closing night film, too. “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie,” directed by Craig Teper, is an engaging portrait of the man who changed the face — well, the hair — of modern women and altered the way that an entire industry, beauty products, was branded and marketed. Sassoon himself is a charming, funny and highly intelligent man, one whose life experiences took him from a Jewish orphanage (where he sang in the synagogue choir) to street fights against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists to service in the Palmach during the Israeli War of Independence. It was this last event that Sassoon says, helped him to find “a sense of dignity as a human being.”
Teper doesn’t stint on this background, but the filmmaker’s heart is clearly in Sassoon’s skyrocketing career as a hairstylist, entrepreneur, TV personality and philanthropist. Regardless, Sassoon emerges from the film as someone it would be both fun and instructive to know, and you can’t ask more from a biographical documentary than that.
The 15th annual Sephardic Jewish Film Festival will be presented by the American Sephardi Foundation at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.) and the JCC in Manhattan (Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street), March 10-16. Many of the filmmakers will be present at screenings of their work. For information on schedule, venues and tickets, call (212) 868-4444 (CJH) or (646) 505-5708 (JCC) or go to www.sephardicfilmfest.org.