The "Jerusalem syndrome" affects some pilgrims to the Holy City, who grow long beards, hear messianic messages, and begin ranting in the streets. Sometimes it seems as if we're all a bit touched by this need for suffering and redemption. The Jewish Film Festival, now in its eighth year, presents 24 films that offer diverse revelations, from Isabella Rossellini's portrayal of a Belgian Hasidic woman (in Left Luggage) to tales of heroism among Finnish Jews (in the documentary Daavid), proving once again that storytelling is the surest form of salvation.
The Western (a/k/a "Wailing") Wall, sacred to religious Jews, can sometimes seem like the Times Square of Jerusalem a place full of latent violence and loony people. Man of the Wall follows gray-bearded Mordechai, who spends days and nights there, dressed in white robes, dancing and chanting in joyful (read: manic) prayer. Elliptical, funny, and poetic, this 58-minute Israeli documentary presents a collage of impressions: a soldier prays, a Hasid paces, cats wander by night, while at daybreak, religious Jews clash with police and Muslims. Mordechai's semi-madness comes to stand for the Wall's enigmatic magnetism; a piece of history, a telephone to God, a barrier, a ruin, and a revered object of faith.
An elusive spirituality is also at the center of The Jew in the Lotus, a documentary based on Roger Kamenetz's book, about the 1990 visit of eight Jewish delegates (rabbis mostly) to the Dalai Lama at his refuge in India. This leader of a people threatened with genocide wanted to know how Jews had maintained their faith and identity through 2000 years of exile. Laurel Chiten's film also recounts Kamenetz's simultaneous journey from the dark night of crippling insecurity to a state of peace (and best-selling authorship). Alas, we're only privy to a tiny fragment of the spiritual leaders' conversations. Kamenetz's conversion, through Buddhism, back to his own faith, makes for a moving story, but the larger historical questions are left hanging.
A 40-minute fragment is all that remains of Against the Fathers' Will, a 1927 Soviet silent adaptation of a Sholem Aleichem novel about the 1905 workers' uprising in Russia. Yet it too presents the complex interweaving of two faiths Judaism and Revolution. Everyone in this provincial Russian backwater is seeking salvation the wealthy Jewish merchant who dreams of marrying his daughter to a baron; his daughter, in love with her tutor, a student revolutionary; their neighbor, whose conversion to Christianity can't save him from the mob's anti-Semitism; his son, an ardent Zionist.
Elsewhere, the dream of assimilation was sweeter. Freefall, Péter Forgács's brilliant and lyrical documentary, is compiled from the home movies of György Petó, scion of an upper-middle-class Hungarian Jewish family. Petó filmed his friends and family in evening clothes and swimsuits, at dinner parties and picnics, while Hitler's armies marched across Europe. Later, he took his camera along on forced labor service and filmed lines of Jewish men digging ditches. Forgács juxtaposes these scenes with voiceovers reading the texts of anti-Jewish laws, the noose that progressively tightened around Hungary's Jewish community. Few of those pictured survived.
Suffused with a glitzier nostalgia, The Harmonists re-creates a bit of Weimar history via the meteoric rise of the Comedian Harmonists, a male sextet famous for their innuendo-laden, a cappella ditties. Three of the six members were Jewish, and their celebrated harmonies began to fracture when the Reich banned Jewish performers. Joseph Vilsmaier's feature suffers from a few hackneyed narrative turns, but it's saved by the giddy decadence of '20s Berlin and the group's rousing production numbers. "Politics is forgotten in Kalumba/People only think about the rhumba," they sang in Nuremberg, with a bunch of SS bigwigs in the audience. The Harmonists left me humming and inspired a Jewish motto for this millennial year if you can't reach the Holy Land or save mankind, at least get dressed up and go out.
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