Fables of Reconstruction

Where lovely Rita is ultimately swept into the dustbin of history, the aged protagonists of Voyages have miraculously managed to escape their annihilation—and must forever wonder why.

The first section of this three-part movie, one of the highlights of last year's "New Directors," follows a tour group of elderly, once Polish, now mainly French, Jews on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. Their bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and as day wanes and snow falls they grow quarrelsome, compelled to consider the reasons they are where they are. Rivka (Shulamit Adar), the 60-something woman who is the sequence's central figure, has returned to Poland from Israel—what is she looking for?

Street fighting women: Beglau and Uhl in The Legend of Rita.
photo: Kino International
Street fighting women: Beglau and Uhl in The Legend of Rita.


The Legend of Rita
Directed by Volker Schlndorff
Written by Schlndorff and Wolfgang Kohlhaase
A Kino International release
Film Forum Through February 6

Written and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel
A New Yorker release
Walter Reade January 26 through February 1

Writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel served as Krzysztof Kieslowski's assistant director on the Three Colors trilogy and, like his mentor, has a knack for orchestrating ordinary moments of mystical communion—when another Auschwitz-bound tour bus pulls up alongside Rivka's, she stares silently at the unknown confrere sealed in the vehicle of his own destiny. Voyages has the ethereality of a movie lost in the cosmos, but it's grounded in a welter of observed details, precise vignettes, and self-contained performances, many by nonprofessional actors. Finkiel has gathered an astonishing ensemble, and to a large degree their being is his subject, as he documents the eloquence of their weathered hands and liquid eyes.

Cutting from the Auschwitz trip to the projection of its video documentation in a Paris gathering of elderly Yiddish-speaking Jews, Finkiel picks up the story of Rivka's contemporary: Régine (Liliane Rovère) returns home to receive a phone call from Vilnius informing her that the now octogenarian parent whom she last saw when they were deported from Paris to Auschwitz, has finally located her and is en route to France. The white light revelation at the window is a prelude to the rondo of uncertainty, disbelief, conflict, and mutual embarrassment involved in her reconciliation with the stranger who calls himself her father.

The film's final episode concerns another restless phantom. Vera (Esther Gorintin), a sturdy 85-year-old with no immediate family and an Auschwitz tattoo, accompanies her Moscow neighbors to Israel. After comfortable Paris and even Poland's snow-softened bleakness, the harshly vibrant Israeli landscape is something of a shock. Searching for a long-lost cousin amid the heat and clamor of Tel Aviv, Vera tries to get by with Yiddish. Why does it take her so long to realize that she'd have an easier time speaking Russian? It's because, among other things, Voyages presents itself as the last movie to emanate from that mythical meta-state called Yidishland. (The characters are, as Finkiel puts it, all "dust from the same star.")

Israel is the land where the past truly inhabits the present. "You're still the same girl," Vera's indescribably old cousin asserts when they finally meet. "Where were you all this time?" It's an unanswerable question. In her travels, Vera also encounters Rivka (who is looking much better back in situ). Ending with one last providential twist, Voyages offers its own commentary on the uncanny coincidences and ghostly returns that characterize Kieslowski's last films. You could say that in the lives of these elderly Jews, Kieslowski's mysticism has been made not only material but historical as well.

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