It is billed, accurately, as a showcase for Jewish and Israeli films and directors, but the all-consuming power of family could just as easily be the theme of this month’s NewFilmmakers program at Anthology Film Archives. From Carroll Gardens to Borough Park as well as Tel Aviv and unnamed places in Eastern Europe, the films on display on Feb. 20 are all about the two-edged sword of blood ties; but their approaches to the subject are varied. With no disrespect to Count Tolstoy, even happy families are not all alike, so films about them won’t be either. all different, so films about them will be, too.
Perhaps the strongest of the movies available for screening at press time, “House Warming” by Lina Gartsman is a visually rigorous but relentlessly underplayed portrait of a Jewish-Russian father and daughter adrift in the unfamiliar world of Israeli bureaucracy. He (Pavel Kravetsky) is truculent and taciturn, hiding his feelings behind a stern, embittered front. She (Asia Naifeld, best known here for “Room 514”) is wounded by memories of childhood abandonment that are compounded by the difficulties of raising her own child in the comparatively unfamiliar surroundings of working-class Tel Aviv. Gartsman brings a steely control to this potentially melodramatic material, and as a result “House Warming” is quite effective.
Pearl Gluck, whose feature documentary “Divan” readers should recall fondly, takes an opposite approach. In her new film, “Where Is Joel Baum,” Baum (Luzer Twersky) is a jittery, mysteriously crazy chasid who aspires to be Lenny Bruce. When he’s not listening to Bruce’s recordings and memorizing his routines, Joel rides a motorcycle and talks to himself. His guardian, the rebbetzin Mrs. Stein (Lynn Cohen), keeps trying to make a shidduch for him with hilariously disastrous results. Most properly raised Orthodox girls don’t respond well to a guy who repeats Lenny’s more salacious routines. When Mrs. Stein brings in a young Polish woman to clean, things take a regrettable turn. “Where Is Joel Baum” has an oddly concertina’d feel. I suspect that if the material is expanded to feature-length and fleshed out more, the result will be more satisfying. As it currently stands, “Baum” is frequently engaging, and the material and the film’s look are strikingly fresh, but the film’s narrative rhythm feels a little out-of-kilter.
“Brooklyn Breach” is the program’s one feature-length film, a dark, brooding tragedy written, produced, edited, shot and directed by Benjamin T. Orifici. It’s his first film and, given the number of jobs he has taken on (he even plays one of the subsidiary characters), the sheer feat of completing it would be impressive enough. Happily, although the end product is not fully realized, Orifici definitely has the chops to make this a promising debut. The film is nothing if not ambitious, juggling the travails of three families in a Brooklyn apartment complex: a Pakistani couple who is juggling careers and family pressures, a Modern Orthodox couple that has been unable to have children, and a neglected teen who is enduring both the growing pains of adolescence with the and the more difficult pains resulting from spinal injuries he sustained in a skateboarding accident that involved a swerving truck. Significantly, none of these families is dealing with only one problem; there are enough secrets and lies for everyone to suffer.
What none among them knows, though, is that the families are under extensive covert surveillance as part of a pharmaceutical company’s trial of a new anti-depressant that the two wives and the boy are taking. We see all of the events unfold through the surveillance cameras, frequently looking over the shoulder of Dr. Cervelli (played by the director, appropriately enough), who is working on the study. It’s a clever device, although Orifici doesn’t get as much mileage out of questions of voyeurism, scopophilia and the nature of the filmgoing experience as others before him. However, his manipulation of split-screen effects and juxtaposition of multiple settings is frequently deft.
The material takes a series of very bleak turns, involving career failure, adultery, suicide, terminal cancer, and Orifici’s take on the behavior of Big Pharma is very, very cynical (although not as jaundiced as the reality of recent events). Some of the writing is awkward and the playing out of the multiple narrative lines is somewhat unsatisfying, but there is enough going on in “Brooklyn Breach” to suggest that Orifici is an indie filmmaker who will bear watching. He already has another Brooklyn-based project in production.
Two other short films in the program are concerned with the impact on Jewish families of a powerful external force, the Shoah. Daniela Flynn’s “Two” is, as the title suggests, a melodramatic two-hander; a pair of women, both played by the director, remember the fate of a Jewish woman who married a non-Jew with terrible consequences when the Nazis came to power. To some extent the eight-minute film relies on a major plot twist that is just surprising enough to carry it. Benjamin Wlodawer’s “Numbers,” by contrast, is a quiet, almost meditative piece about a refugee from the camps now living in a forest bunker; he recounts his strangely idyllic existence in letters to his brother. One day an unexpected encounter with a stranger threatens his survival. The outcome is not unexpected but rewarding nonetheless, and Wlodawer is clearly a director of promise.
NewFilmmakers will screen a program of new Israeli, Jewish and Jewish-themed films on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at Anthology Film Archives (Second Avenue and Second Street). The first program of shorts, including “Two,” “Numbers,” “Adam’s Tallit” and “Where Is Joel Baum,” begins at 6 p.m. The two Israeli films, “Between the Lines” and “House Warming,” will be shown at 7:15 p.m. “Brooklyn Breach” will be shown at 9:15 p.m. For information, go to www.NewFilmmakers.com.