Among the abiding pleasures of the Tribeca Film Festival, which began its 17th annual run this week and continues through April 29, is its diligent focus on diversity in its choice of filmmakers. This year’s festival has a focus on women directors, with a balance of young and old and a global reach that is truly impressive in its inclusiveness.
Consider a few of the Jewish-themed films. The opening night film, regrettably unavailable at press time, was “Love, Gilda,” an affectionate portrait of Gilda Radner based on her previously unpublished diaries and numerous audio and video recordings that have never been seen before. The director is a native New Yorker, Lisa D’Apolito.
By contrast, “Disobedience” is helmed by Chilean veteran Sebastian Lelio, the creator of this year’s best foreign-language Oscar-winner, “A Fantastic Woman.” Not for the first time, Lelio’s attention is centered on a strong, defiant woman. Rachel Weisz is drawn back to the London Orthodox community of her youth for a funeral, falling back into a relationship with her oldest friends, a married couple who have remained in the fold. (The film opens theatrically towards the end of the festival and will receive full attention in next week’s issue.)
There are also new documentaries, one about the reinvention of Barbie, the brainchild of Ruth Handler (“Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie”), and another about the iconic jazz record label Blue Note, the creation of two refugees from the Nazis, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff (“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes”).
Tribeca also has a well-deserved reputation as a showcase for new Israeli film talent, and two of the more striking offerings in the festival are the work of Israeli women, “Dead Women Walking” by Hagar Ben Asher and “Virgins” by first-timer Keren Ben Rafael.
Ben Asher is a figure of some controversy in Israel, thanks in no small part to her debut feature “The Slut,” which immediately established her as a talented and outspoken actress-writer-director who would go her own way regardless of consequences. Subsequent films have solidified that reputation, which hardly prepares a viewer for “Dead Women Walking.” A fiction film composed of nine vignettes around convicted murderers awaiting execution in the U.S., the film is surprisingly low-key, all the more powerful because of Ben Asher’s restraint.
Her main concern is the minutiae of daily life in the months and hours before the death sentence is carried out. Not surprisingly, the women are drawn almost exclusively from the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder but Ben Asher manages to find compelling variations. She extends her concerns to a nun whose compassion for one prisoner oversteps the law, and to the families of both offenders and victims.
As writer-director, Ben Asher’s own compassion is spread generously and movingly on both sides of the bars, and the film is distinguished by her acute eye for the telling detail, a certain wry, hard-won humor and an astute rendering of the claustrophobia of prison life. As is usually the case with an anthology-style film, some episodes are stronger than others. Perhaps the most effective and not coincidentally among the longest stories is focused on a “last car ride” of an unbending inmate who finds herself being taken to the death house by an old high school nemesis. This tale blends some of the film’s darkest comic moments with its most pointed pathos, culminating in a brilliant, funny, disdainful curtain line. That the cast of the film is made up of almost entirely unknowns, deft character actors getting a well-deserved star turn, is one of the film’s great strengths.
In “Virgins,” Keren Ben Rafael peoples a fictional dead-end seaside town, Kiryat Yam, with actors who will probably seem just as unfamiliar. Joy Rieger, the film’s young female lead, has done a bit of TV work and was one of the leads in “Past Life,” Avi Nesher’s 2016 film. Evgenia Dodina, who plays her mother, has a considerably longer filmography that includes several prominent television series, as well as compelling appearances in “Past Life” and the hilarious “One Week and One Day.” Michael Aloni, a cynical writer who becomes the object of Rieger’s fascination, is probably best-known for his work in the hit series “Shtisel,” in which he played Akiva Shtisel.
Ben Rafael is as fortunate and astute in her casting choices as Ben Asher, with Rieger, in particular, giving a career-launching star turn as the precocious and dissatisfied Lena (who calls herself Lana and insists that her mother do the same). When the writer asks her to translate his interview with a local Russian fisherman, she weaves an elaborate fiction about the mermaid who lives in the waters near the town. Amused by her chutzpah, the writer runs with it, triggering a playful frenzy of mermaid-seeking tourists, fueled by the town’s opportunistic mayor. For the most part, Ben Rafael plays this for engaging farce, anchored by the querulous presence of Lena’s 10-year-old cousin Tamar, but the film takes a disturbing and, frankly, overly-contrived turn in its last 15 minutes. But as a first feature and a vehicle for some very special acting, “Virgins” shows great promise.
Oddly, “To Dust,” also a first feature, this one by Shawn Snyder, goes through a similar but more rewarding last-minute rebirth. Starring Géza Röhrig (“Son of Saul”) as a recently bereaved chasidic cantor, the film starts out with an uneasy blend of tragedy and farce. Shmuel, the new widower, is becoming obsessed with nightmares about the inevitable decay of his late wife’s interred body. He decides to consult an expert but the closest he can come is Albert, a biology teacher at the local community college. Albert (Matthew Broderick, looking mysteriously like a middle-aged Theodore Bikel) is a profoundly maladroit schlemiel, a divorced, feckless, pot-smoking Jethro Tull fan who is utterly unequipped to cope with Shmuel’s grief-fueled obsession. Shmuel is similarly unable to deal with his two young sons.
“To Dust” begins as the sort of comedy that imagines it would be uproarious if Shmuel finds himself stealing a rather large pig for his and Albert’s scientific studies of how bodies return to the soil. Of course, when they are burying the deceased porker, they get caught in a raging downpour, with predictably messy results. And yet … the film’s best moments, and they are substantial, occur when Snyder lets proceedings turn quiet and serious. There is a genuinely lovely scene between Shmuel and a young widow who has been presented to him as a potential second wife. When Shmuel and Albert are permitted to stop horsing around and just interact, Snyder convincingly shows us a bond being gently, tentatively established between two sad, wounded men.
And in the film’s final 15 minutes, involving a late-night visit to a forensic body farm that is interrupted by the arrival of a smart, sympathetic female security guard, the film suddenly rises to a moment of genuine and powerful feeling as all three characters ruminate on the implacability of our own impending death and return to earth. As a result, Snyder and co-writer Jason Begue, Röhrig and Broderick, turn this potential sow’s ear into a very passable purse, nicely embroidered, if not silken.
The 17th annual Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 29 at venues all over Lower Manhattan. As is always the case, there will be numerous roundtables, showcases of new technology, free screenings and related events. For information on screenings and other events, go to tribecafilm.com/festival.