Last year’s edition of the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival was an informal tribute to Ronit Elkabetz. This year’s event, the 16th annual festival, crowns her successor, Reymond Amsalem.
Amsalem has two strong star turns on display in this year’s event, in Nissim Notrika’s “Obsession” and in Marco Carmel’s “My Lovely Sister.” She’s a good enough actress to hold her own in comparison to Elkabetz, and as star vehicles, both of her films in the festival are sturdy throwbacks to the days of the family melodramas that turned Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into icons.
Amsalem is hardly a stranger here. After supporting roles in 2006 films “Janem Janem” and “Three Mothers” (which is being shown again in this year’s festival), she moved up to a starring role in “Seven Minutes in Heaven” (2008) and had small but powerful cameos in “Lebanon” and “The Human Resources Manager.” Last year was her big breakthrough, with the two films being shown in the Sephardic festival and a significant role opposite Ronit in “Edut,” written and directed by her brother Shlomi Elkabetz.
“Obsession” is Amsalem’s Crawford turn, with the Israeli actress playing the long-suffering wife of Sammy, a charming ne’er-do-well — a gambling, whoring Ashkenazi loafer (Yehezkel Lazarov). She just can’t let the lout go, even after he has spent all their money, ended up in jail with a mountain of debts and been bailed out, in every sense of the word, by his mistress. The film’s ambiguous ending makes it clear that, whatever else happens, she’s still carrying an Olympic-sized torch for him, and nothing he could do will douse the flame.
In truth, “Obsession” owes more to the British version of neo-realism, the ’50s “kitchen-sink” drama. The film falls squarely into a burgeoning Israeli subgenre of Mizrahi family melodramas that clearly derive their focus and style from works like “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Look Back in Anger.” Like the UK versions, these are portraits of working-class women whose men are stuck in dead-end jobs, with the whole lot imprisoned in decaying industrial cities on the margins of society. But where the British New Wave was virtually obsessed with masculinity and its rituals, the Mizrahi dramas are focused on the suffering of the women who are chained to the Israeli equivalents of “lager louts” from Newcastle.
Amsalem’s character in “Obsession” isn’t an agunah, she isn’t even seeking a divorce, but she is as much a prisoner as any agunot, even if she has forged her own chains. Notrika handles the material with a fairly sure hand for a first-time director, but the film is repetitive and dour, with Amsalem’s courtship by her husband’s timid business partner providing an unconvincing Paddy Chayefsky-type alternative.
Marco Carmel, whose first feature, “In Father’s Footsteps” was something of a cross between a dynastic gangster film and another kitchen-sink extravaganza, moves wholeheartedly into family melodrama with “My Lovely Sister.” As Mary, Amsalem seemingly gets the Bette Davis part here. She’s the willful but good-hearted woman with a terminal disease, banished from the family for falling in love with an Arab man. Her sister (Evelin Hagoel) is such an evil woman that she destroys Mary’s birth certificate rather than allow the possibility of her being buried next to their mother. So it’s another Joan Crawford masochism sweepstakes.
But it’s also a ghost story, because Mary comes back in full Davis mode — wry, randy and ready for revenge. Amsalem gets the best of both worlds of old-fashioned female stardom, the kind of double act that probably would have been impossible 60 years ago. And she plays them to the hilt.
Ronit Elkabetz, of course, has a film in this year’s festival, too, Guy Nattiv’s “Mabul” (Flood). It’s another exploration of the family melodrama, this time leavened with considerable amounts of comedy — a combination at which she has long shown she is a master. The film’s principle focus, though, is on the ways that puberty and adversity shape personal identity. Yoni (Yoav Rotman) is having all the traumas that accompany turning 13. He is preparing for his bar mitzvah ceremony, worrying about his diminutive size and trying to fend off the school bullies. His problems are complicated by a few unique twists: he has a yen for his rabbi’s brazen daughter, his dope-smoking father has been grounded by the small air service for which he works, and his autistic older brother Tomer (Michael Moshonov) has just been sent home from the sanitarium where he has lived for several years. This, in turn, creates some new and disturbing tensions in the home, not the least for Yoni’s mom Miri (Elkabetz), whose pre-school/day-care operation is jeopardized by Tomer’s presence.
Nattiv juggles all these elements with a fair degree of success for most of the film. Tzachi Grad’s hangdog look makes Gidi, the father, instantly recognizable as a poster-boy for failure, while Elkabetz turns in another performance in which her barely concealed bitterness and pained expression convey more levels of pain and disappointment than the script (by Nattiv and Noa Berman-Herzberg). But the heart of the film belongs to Yoni, and the 15-year-old Rotman manages to be fairly convincing as the dark flip-side of a young Woody Allen. The problem with “Mabul,” as with so many other films of this sort, is that the damaged child exists mainly as a catalyst, an excuse for intra-family truth-telling and a hot flow of tears mixed with recriminations. As a result, the ending seems pat and forced.
The documentaries in this year’s festival are fairly straightforward. “Empty Boxcars,” by Ed Gaffney, recounts the tragedy of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia during the Shoah, and contrasts it with the better fortune of their Bulgarian counterparts. When King Boris III of Bulgaria became an official ally of the Axis, his pay-off was the annexation of Thrace and Macedonia; the 11,393 Jews who lived there weren’t Bulgarian citizens, so he felt no need to protect them from the trains to Treblinka, despite protests from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and other non-Jewish organizations. When the time came to deport Bulgarian Jews, however, those protests became even more vociferous and widespread, with the result that 50,000 Jews were saved. Gaffney takes a measured view of this story of compromise, cowardice and heroism, but his film is marred by significant repetition and a portentous, ponderous narration.
The Israeli-Iraqi rock musician Dudu Tassa has an illustrious musical family past. Gili Gaon’s profile of him, “Iraq ’n’ Roll,” explains that Tassa’s grandfather and grand-uncle were Sala and Daud al-Kweiti, two of the founders of modern Iraqi music, so important and beloved that they were guests at the palace in Iraq despite being Jews. But when they made aliyah in the 1950s, they found themselves in an Israel that didn’t appreciate their “old” music, and forced them to earn a living as storeowners, playing music only infrequently. Spurred on by Yair Dallal, who had apprenticed with them as a young musician, Tassa has decided to incorporate their music into his repertoire, drawing on his mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of their songs. The film follows him as he begins work on this project, eventually bringing together the wildly different worlds of Arabic music of the ’30s and the remixed shake-and-bake rock and roll of contemporary Israel.
The 16th Annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival takes place March 15-22, at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.), with a screening of “The Last Jews of Libya” at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.). For information go to www.sephardicfilmfest.org.