If Borat's delicate musings on the Jewish cultural experience are not quite your bowl of matzo-ball soup, maybe the movies at the eighth annual Central Florida Jewish Film Festival will go down easier. Presented by Enzian Theater (where the films will be shown) and the Jewish Community Center, the festival will feature four movies, two each on Sunday, Nov. 19, and Monday, Nov. 20. For information about tickets, visit www.enzian.org or call the JCC at (407) 645-5933, ext. 245.
Wondrous Oblivion, the best of the four films, will be shown at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The bad news is that it's about cricket. The good news is that it doesn't require you to understand a damn thing about the game.
Set in a suburban English neighborhood of the 1960s, this gentle-spirited production looks in on the Wisemans, an immigrant Jewish family that does its best to ignore the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Semitism of the neighbors. Things don't get much better for the Wisemans after the black Jamaican Samuels family moves in next door and 11-year-old David Wiseman buddies up to them. David (Sam Smith), it seems, is a miserable cricket player, and Dennis (Delroy Lindo), the cricket-whiz head of the Samuels household, is happy to tutor him in the sport.
Writer/director Paul Morrison touches on several intriguing themes: Wondrous Oblivion is simultaneously a coming-of-age film, a message movie and, it turns out, the story of a forbidden romance (of sorts). They all fit together, thanks to Morrison's playful visual spirit. (The men on David's cricket trading cards move and speak.) And if the film is sometimes formulaic, it answers an important question in an unexpected way: Is it possible for a sports movie to be about something other than winning the big game? In Wondrous Oblivion, the wondrous answer is yes.
Knowledge Is the Beginning
With Knowledge Is the Beginning, the central question is a rhetorical "How can they possibly be so naive?" Billed as a U.S. premiere, this distressingly optimistic documentary (presented at 3:30 p.m. Monday) traces the efforts of Israeli conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to form an orchestra of young Arab and Jewish classical musicians as a small step toward peace in the Middle East.
Barenboim and Said certainly come off as well-meaning, and the experience of actually playing in that orchestra had to be transformative for those young musicians. But it's a big problem for this film that writer-director Paul Smaczny uncritically accepts the controversial notion that the orchestra has accomplished much of anything else. (Late in the film, a couple of naysayers poke their heads in, only to be dismissed.)
"The message of music is a message of peace," says a man who introduces one of the group's concerts, and that's clearly the view of the film. That statement takes in a lot of territory, including such less-than-peaceful music as "Ride of the Valkyries," the "1812 Overture" and most of heavy metal, for starters. This foolish sentimentality would be far less troubling if the problems in the Middle East were not so very dire.
A Cantor's Tale
A Cantor's Tale, the festival's other documentary, is also about music. But in this case the music is hazzanut, or Eastern European liturgical music. Producer/director Erik Greenberg Anjou explores the historical and religious significance of this music, which is sung by cantors in synagogues during services. The movie's central character is Jacob "Jackie" Mendelson, a cantor, teacher and tireless promoter of hazzanut.
This film (presented at 11 a.m. Sunday) covers a lot of ground and could have used a stronger organizing principle. Still, Mendelson is both affable and amusing, and that helps. So do appearances by dedicated fans of hazzanut, whose singular devotion rivals that of opera buffs and Trekkies. Putting in especially entertaining appearances are such famous admirers as comedian Jackie Mason and law professor Alan Dershowitz.
When people in this film speak Yiddish, the words are translated in subtitles onscreen. Even so, a working knowledge of Jewish life will be helpful, if not essential, for grasping the film's nuances. The underlying question here, of course, is, "Can this music survive?" With Mendelson on the job, it might. it might.
Fateless tells the story of Gyuri (Marcell Nagy), a 14-year-old Jewish Hungarian who is packed off to a series of concentration camps after the Nazis occupy his country. In some sense, this could be described as a well-made film. Director Lajos Koltai, a respected cinematographer, has shot the film in an understated, elegant visual style that is often just a half-step away from black-and-white. The script, by Imre Kertesz, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize—winning author, is understated, too. (James Bond fanatics, please note that this film features Daniel Craig, the new 007, in a cameo as a Jewish-American soldier.)
Fateless will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Monday, in Hungarian and German with English subtitles. The problem with the film is that the material is simply too familiar. We've seen the misery of the camps so many times before that watching it all again, and in such an unemphatic style, eventually becomes a tedious horror, if not an exercise in masochism. The only twist comes right near the end, when the filmmakers raise the question, "Is it possible to feel nostalgia for life in a concentration camp?" Warning: You may not like their answer.
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