Sunday, Nov. 6, and Monday, Nov. 7
This year’s edition of the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival packs in tales of understanding, cultural significance, death and inheritance – a substantial meal spread over four films in two days.
Well-intentioned, yet by nature fairly toothless, this low-budget charmer nevertheless introduces a promising concept: Daud (non-actor Muatasem Mishal in a fine performance) is the reserved only son of a muslim New York imam (comedian Maz Jobrani) who, thanks to a misunderstanding regarding a lost Talmud, finds himself attending a progressive yeshiva where he’s believed to be a Jew named David. He soon falls in with a group of nice boys working on a family history project for class while his father is busy at home trying to convince his daughter not to accept a scholarship to Stanford. David too often plays as a rose-tinted endorsement of Torah study, a politically discomforting contrast to Daud’s strict patriarchy at home, but the film’s more hands-off moments of observation as Daud learns Jewish games and customs helps maintain interest as the tension builds.
The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, Europe’s largest, is actually located near Berlin. Despite its proximity to the epicenter of Jewish persecution in the 1930s and ’40s, it remains standing, relatively undisturbed, to this day, as it did for decades before the Nazis came to power. It holds about 115,000 graves across 100 well-manicured, lush acres. That info is about the most interesting aspect of this endless documentary written, directed and produced by Britta Wauer, who attempts to imbue the site with character by delving into the wealthy founder’s history, focusing on a German guard’s so-called spooky experiences there at night and peering over the shoulder of a visitor’s sobbing fit. Combined with shot after shot of tourists unloading off of buses, cameras in tow, or a class of students tracing the gravestone fonts in order to make their very own for a project, In Heaven, Underground takes on a lowbrow tone.
Max Malamud, owner of a well-loved yet financially struggling antique restoration business in Israel, drops dead while being serviced by a prostitute. That leaves his partner, Yaakov (Sasson Gabai) high and dry, as he has neither the business savvy nor the connections – one potential bailout source chides him for never inviting him for tea – to keep the place afloat. His problems have only just begun: In short order, his son, Noah (Nevo Kimchi) threatens to sell the shop and new hire Anton (Henri David) seems ill equipped to do anything but romance Noah’s pregnant wife (Sarah Adler). In other words, nobody involved in this complex yet fresh film is untarnished, not even the mysterious old Steinway in the corner that might be worth a fortune. There are long periods where the story sags under its own weight and the payoff is relatively anticlimactic, but with solid performances and an intriguing setting (the restoration shop, a never-ending world of new textures), Restoration is a satisfying detour.
It’s always a pleasure when a culture god’s early exploits live up to the legend. Such is the case with Solomon Rabinovich, otherwise known as Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer whose character Tevye the Milkman was later the basis of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. As explained in this enriching, fascinating documentary by writer-director Joseph Dorman, Rabinovich grew up in a Russian shtetl, was raised in poverty, married rich, lost all his money, moved to America, moved back to Europe and contracted tuberculosis more than once. Most incredibly, Aleichem’s writing caught on because of its use of the Yiddish language – then thought of as low and something to be shed by Jewish culture – not in spite of it. From well-delivered readings to talking-head speechifying so rife with historical context that each point could support an entire lesson, Dorman’s film is that rare combination of entertainment and education.
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