This weekend sees the theatrical opening of a rather oddly assorted trio of Jewish films: a thoughtful if rather conventional historical documentary, a melodrama that takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as literal family feud and a beautifully wrought mood piece that mixes lush visuals with starkly private emotional states to considerable effect.
“Orchestra of Exiles,” produced, written and directed by Josh Aronson, tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman, one of the world’s most famous and talented violinists. Moved by the plight of his fellow Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany and his own love of the Yishuv as a Jewish homeland, he created the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra as a professional and personal safe haven. Leon Botstein, the scholar/composer who is president of Bard College, is one of the many contemporary voices upon whom Aronson draws, and he sums up Haberman’s accomplishment succinctly: “to organize something totally new, to show that the threat of Nazism would not destroy the cultural achievement of the Jewish people.” And, not incidentally, saving a thousand European Jews from the Nazi inferno.
Aronson faces the practical dilemma that confronts any documentarian interested in a subject under-documented on film.
Without much actual footage of Huberman or his nascent orchestra, Aronson is forced to rely on a mixture of still photos, stock footage, interviews with survivors and/or experts, actors reading from letters and diaries and the dreaded “re-enactment” of events with actors in period costume. For the most part, “Orchestra” uses an artful and intelligent mix of newsreel footage, much of it unfamiliar; interviews with a delightfully voluble group of musicians, including not only the few surviving members of the original 70 PPO members and third-generation players from what is now the Israel Philharmonic, but also a who’s who of Jewish violin genius: Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. The re-enactments, however, are a bit jarring, especially when Aronson and editor Nancy Kennedy strive for a seamless blend of actors and narrators.
Still, “Orchestra of Exiles” is frequently engrossing, particularly when discussing Huberman’s evolution from child prodigy to multifaceted adult, and the music is, needless to say, grandly realized.
There is a 1995 film, “White Man’s Burden,” that posits an alternative America in which black people are the social elite and white people are the underclass. With little historical or socioeconomic background, the film reduces America’s incredibly complicated history of race relations to a series of “can’t-we-all-get-along” platitudes, willfully ignoring just about every aspect of the tangled skeins of the nation’s history.
The new film “The Other Son” isn’t nearly as obtuse as that farrago. It is set (and shot) in contemporary Israel and the West Bank, assumes its audience knows what has happened and is happening there, is competently directed by Lorraine Lévy and well acted by an excellent cast, particularly the always compelling Emmanuelle Devos. But the situation the film creates and the way it plays out in the screenplay (by Lévy, Nathalie Saugeon and Noam Fitoussi) is as artificial, saccharine and uselessly palliative as the American film’s plot gimmick.
Joseph (Jules Sitruk) is an 18-year-old musician, the son of a highly decorated IDF colonel (Pascal Elbé) and a doctor (Devos), awaiting his army service with a mixture of bemusement and concern. When his blood test gives an odd result, an investigation reveals that he is not, in fact, his parents’ son but was switched at birth during a missile attack in the First Gulf War. Of course, his opposite number, the real son, is a bright young Palestinian, Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), who has just finished his bachelor’s degree in Paris and is planning on medical school.
Unsurprisingly, both families are shocked and devastated, and the expected complications ensue. So, too, do the expected clichés. The boys’ pre-adolescent sisters immediately bond. Yacine and Joseph become friends a bit awkwardly. The parents are alarmed and confused, and Bilal, Yacine’s bitter older brother (Mahmood Shalabi, in one of the film’s best performances) is profoundly alienated from the kid brother he used to adore.
Lévy handles all the emotions efficiently, albeit with the eye of a better-than-average television director. But the entire situation feels contrived, the denouement is insultingly pat and the result feels like a tourist’s view of the politics of the Middle East.
Julia Loktev is a Russian-born Jewish filmmaker who lives and works in New York City. Hani Furstenberg is a New York-born Jewish actress who, until recently, worked exclusively in Israeli films. Add to that mix the London-trained Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and the Georgian geologist and mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze and the production of Loktev’s new film “The Loneliest Planet” might make an even better film than the one she actually made. That, in itself, would be a remarkable achievement, because “The Loneliest Planet” is easily one of the half-dozen best films I’ve seen in 2012.
Like her one previous feature, “Day Night Day Night” (2006), Loktev’s new film is about a woman in extremis, facing unusual pressures in unfamiliar surroundings. Where the previous film was about a would-be female suicide bomber dropped into the muddle of midtown Manhattan, “Planet” focuses much of its attention on Nica (Furstenberg) who is hiking through Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains with her fiancé Alex (Bernal) and Dato, a guide (Gujabidze). When Alex reacts inappropriately in a sudden moment of peril it drives a wedge between the couple that resonates throughout the rest of the film.
Despite the presence of Loktev as writer-director and Furstenberg as the female lead, “Planet” doesn’t really have any over Jewish content except, perhaps, for the sense that Alex and Nica are people who are not really at home anywhere. But Loktev’s blending of the surreally beautiful but eerie Georgian landscapes and the emotional claustrophobia of the situation is compelling, even hypnotic. It’s a film of long silences and a vision of the world as an overwhelming presence that dwarves the humans who struggle through it.
“Orchestra of Exiles” opens Friday, Oct. 26 at the Quad Cinema (34 W.13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com. “The Other Son” opens on Friday, Oct. 26 at the Village East Cinema (Second Avenue and 12th Street; (212) 529-6998, www.villageeastcinema.com) and Beekman Theatre (1271 Second Ave.; (212) 585-4141, www.beekmantheatre.com). “The Loneliest Planet” opens on Friday, Oct. 26 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue; (212) 924-7771, www.ifccenter.com).