To the extent that one can identify a running theme in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, which runs through Jan. 26, it might be the ways Jews have managed to negotiate a tricky divide; many protagonists in the festival’s films are balancing quietist assimilation in non-Jewish societies with the compulsion to activism that underlies the biblical injunction to seek justice.
You can see that balancing act playing itself out, albeit leaning heavily towards the activist side of the ledger, in films as various as Amos Gitai’s “Rabin: The Last Day,” with its intent glare at the right-wing militants whose action precipitated the assassination of the Israeli prime minister (it played the festival last week and will open theatrically next week), and the resolute Naum Kleiman, protagonist of “Cinema: A Public Affair,” a man deeply committed to film as a spur to building civil society in Russia.
Sometimes the issue is at the forefront of a film by the very nature of its protagonist. “The Law,” a film made for French television by Christian Faure, is an obvious example. The film stars Emmanuelle Devos as Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor and attorney who, serving as minister of health under Jacques Chirac in 1974, became the public face of the proposed legalization of abortion in France. Of course, Veil’s Jewishness made her even more of a lightning rod for anti-Semitism in a Catholic nation that has never entirely accepted the reality that Alfred Dreyfus was framed, and Faure’s film, doesn’t sidestep the issue.
But “The Law” treats the subject matter with the depth and insight one would expect from a telefilm. Juxtaposing Veil’s campaign with the work of a young photojournalist (Lorent Deutsch), the screenplay turns a complicated issue and its larger social context into a smoothly running and utterly predictable genre piece. Devos (who starred in “Violette”) is always worth watching, but she functions here mainly as an icon, and Faure’s direction never raises the film above the level of an efficiently purring machine.
If anything, Regina Schilling’s “Tito’s Glasses” could use a bit more of that kind of purr. A documentary inspired by the autobiography of its central figure, Jewish director and actress Adriana Altaras, the film traces her hectic family history from Tito’s Yugoslavia, where her parents were well-regarded former partisans who had fought alongside the legendary premier, to her own madcap life in Berlin with her husband and two sons.
Altaras is one of the generation of pre-1989 skeptics — even in an ostensibly anti-Soviet enclave like Tito’s republic — who saw with varying degrees of clarity, the failures of the Stalinist system. Given her parents’ enthusiasm for his leadership, her own exile and the subsequent violent dissolution of the nation, her sense of personal identity is understandably somewhat embattled. Her parents’ deaths reignite old embers, taking her back to encounter family, friends, places and objects from the past, triggering a lot of rather public soul-searching.
This gives “Tito’s Glasses” a familiar narrative structure, potentially given a fresh spin by the somewhat unfamiliar location and history, but Schilling and Altaras are all-too-willing to give history free rein and the result is a film that is enormously frustrating, an uneasy mix of foolishness and seemingly painful self-assessment. Knowing the historical threads through which the film is picking, from Croatian Fascist butchery of Jews and Communists through the repressiveness of Titoism to the gruesome brutality of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, it is hard to have much patience for the film’s frivolous elements which, frankly, would be grating even in a more light-hearted setting.
Robert Riskin knew more than a little about blending frivolity with the darker impulses of the human spirit. As Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter and the author of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “It Happened One Night” and “Meet John Doe,” among many others, he was a master at finding the social criticism within screwball comedy and vice versa. That sophisticated skill made him the perfect choice to head a team of film artists asked by the U.S. government to present a cinematic picture of America to a post-WWII world. The story of that venture, titled “Projections of America” like the film series it limns, makes for a solid piece of documentary filmmaking by Peter Miller (“AKA Doc Pomus,” “Jews and Baseball”).
Miller wisely chooses Riskin as his point of entry into the subject, not only because as a Jewish-American Riskin had a lot at stake in the war and its aftermath, but because as a veteran of a particular moment in Hollywood history, Riskin brought an unusual skill set to the task of introducing the rest of the world to the still relatively unfamiliar American way(s) of life. Add to that Riskin’s winning personality and eloquence, and the story of his courtship of and marriage to Fay Wray, and you have a splendid armature for what might otherwise have been just another piece of Hollywood Americana. Miller’s handling of the material is straightforward and conventional, but his film’s candor about the political turbulence that buffeted the project and its aftermath is admirable and useful. The decision to pair “Projections of America” with one of the best of the series offerings, Irving Lerner’s “The Autobiography of a Jeep,” is pure programming gold.
Solomon Nunes Carvalho was an unlikely candidate for activism or adventuring, but he enthusiastically took on both in pursuit of art. “Carvalho’s Journey,” directed by Steve Rivo, is a spirited retelling of the all-but-forgotten story of the Baltimore-based painter and daguerreotypist, a Sephardic Jew who was probably the first professional photographer of his faith, and the man who documented Colonel John Fremont’s quixotic fifth expedition across the American West in 1853. Rivo cleverly opens his film in the middle of Carvalho’s story, with his decidedly urban protagonist agreeing to go into the wilderness with Fremont for a one-of-a-kind journey. The well-to-do observant Jew has never even saddled a horse, let alone trekked through the deserts and mountains awaiting him.
It sounds like the scenario for a Jewish remake of “The Revenant,” and there are more than a few passing similarities, but the spiritual and cross-cultural odyssey involved is more benign and more fruitful, and the result, while not as portentous as that of the Oscar-nominated adventure, is no less far-reaching in its implications. Rivo tells the story briskly, with immeasurable assistance from Robert Shlaer, a modern-day practitioner of the daguerreotype who has been recreating Carvalho’s trajectory.
The New York Jewish Film Festival runs through Jan. 26. For schedule, tickets and information, go to nyjff.org.