Two new films opening this weekend at the Quad Cinema offer riffs on classic clichés of 20th-century Jewish-American masculinity: the radical firebrand and the nebbish. Unsurprisingly, it’s the rabble-rouser who merits our attention, but the nebbish is given a sufficiently unusual to be interesting too.
Sidney Rittenberg, the title figure in the new documentary “The Revolutionary,” is in many ways a familiar archetype. While still an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Rittenberg was asked if he would help local textile workers organize a union. Soon he found himself working full-time as a labor and civil rights activist, and he continued in that vein until he was drafted into the U.S. Army at the outset of the Second World War.
Except for his upbringing in the South — he was born and raised in Charleston, S.C. — Rittenberg’s story is pretty typical of Depression-era Jews, even ones with money and some degree of social prominence. As the film’s narration, by co-director Irv Drasnin, makes clear, growing up in the Old South, even for a prominent Jewish family, meant being outsiders; although the film doesn’t go into much detail, it is left clear that Rittenberg’s experience of local intolerance marked him politically and personally.
It was his time in the Army that altered Rittenberg’s life trajectory in the most unexpected way imaginable. He was sent to the West Coast, installed at Stanford and put to work learning Chinese. Then he was dispatched to China, where he worked as an interpreter. He fell in love with the Chinese language, culture and people and, when the war ended, he stayed on, determined to “build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people.”
That “engineering” task, combined with Rittenberg’s radical political bent, led him to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party and a dedicated supporter of the Chinese Revolution. His language skills made him a valuable asset, and eventually he found himself in the paradoxical position of being the only U.S. citizen in the Party and the only Party member in the English-language section of Radio Beijing.
Inevitably, Rittenberg would fall afoul of the constantly shifting political winds in China. After Stalin told Chinese leaders that he was an American spy, Rittenberg served six years in solitary confinement in a Chinese prison. When Stalin died, he was released, and he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks. But in the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, he would again find himself on the wrong side of the jailhouse doors. All told, he spent 15 years, 11 months and 14 days in solitary confinement during his two prison terms.
“The Revolutionary” consists mostly of what the filmmakers call “a five-year conversation” between them and Rittenberg, and it is an engaging chat, making for an endlessly fascinating film. He is seldom off-camera and is never dull. He is smart and funny and his voice stills bears traces of a Charleston accent. His assessments of his actions are balanced and frank. “History rolled right over my body,” he says towards the end of the film. He looks back on Chairman Mao as “a great hero and a great criminal,” but has few apparent regrets. “I was part of a movement for human progress, I felt,” he says.
How we got from the real-life Sidney Rittenbergs of this world to the post-WWII schlemiels of Jewish-American fiction and film is a long story for another time and place. As V.S. Naipaul wrote, “the world is what it is,” and for Jewish-American culture, a lot of the world of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s centered on Woody Allen. Apparently, if the new French comedy “Paris-Manhattan” is to be believed, so does the Franco-Jewish world.
Well, one small part of it — the part inhabited by Parisian pharmacist Alice Ovitz (Alice Taglioni) who has been obsessed with the American icon since she was 15. Love has been a source of constant disappointment for her — as the film shows us in a series of rather clumsily strung-together vignettes at its outset — and she takes refuge in her imaginary dialogues with the huge poster of Allen that dominates her bedroom. After that shaky beginning, the film lurches into the fictional present and begins, with fits and starts, to find its footing. Alice has inherited her father’s shop, and business is booming, but there are strange rumblings on the home front. Her mother seems to be drinking more than usual, her brother-in-law may be cheating, her niece has a mysterious boyfriend who hasn’t met the family. And, for course, she is unmarried and unattached.
Into her life steps Victor (Patrick Bruel). He’s Jewish, he’s cute, he’s the slightly eccentric designer of (malfunctioning) security systems that utilize such unlikely deterrents as chloroform and electroshock. Of course, they will spend the bulk of the film’s 77-minute running time being wrong for each other until they are — surprise — right for each other. Victor even manages to enlist Woody himself as the closer on the deal, so to speak.
When the film, by first time writer-director Sophie Lellouche, isn’t tripping over its own feet and failing to meet the comic expectations it carefully sets up, it has a certain dopey charm. Bruel and Taglioni have a rather nice chemistry when the script doesn’t push too hard, and Michel Aumont is amusing as her father, a perpetual optimist who passes out his daughter’s business card to nearly every eligible man he meets. At the very least, it’s a more pleasant divertissement than the last several Allen films.
“The Revolutionary,” by Irv Drasnin, Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers, and “Paris-Manhattan” written and directed by Sophie Lellouche, both open on Friday, April 12 at the Quad Cinema (34. W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.