25th annual Central Florida Jewish Film Festival comes to Orlando Saturday

Enzian Theater and Orlando Science Center host six feature films comprising the stylistically varied program

'The Other Widow,' nominated for nine Israeli Oscars, screens Monday at Enzian.
'The Other Widow,' nominated for nine Israeli Oscars, screens Monday at Enzian. photo courtesy CFJFF

As the world watches the horrors in Israel and Gaza, the 25th annual Central Florida Jewish Film Festival reminds us of the power of cinema to educate, unite and promote peace.

This year's fest, co-presented by Enzian Theater and Shalom Orlando, will screen five narrative-fiction features and one feature documentary Saturday through Tuesday, Nov. 4-7. Adding to the event's appeal is Jewish food: spinach-and-cheese knishes; latkes with applesauce and sour cream; tzimmes with beef, carrots and sweet potatoes; holishkes (stuffed cabbage); and Hebrew National hot dogs with sauerkraut and brown mustard. (Enzian will also offer its regular menu.)

click to enlarge 'Matchmaking' - film still courtesy CFJFF
film still courtesy CFJFF

Starting the fest is a film that asks you to reimagine Romeo and Juliet as a Hebrew-Yiddish comedy.

Directed and co-written by Erez Tadmor (A Matter of Size) and screening at the Orlando Science Center on Saturday at 7:45 p.m., Matchmaking (2 ½ stars on 0-5 scale) was a huge hit in Israel and is an understandable choice to open this festival. Nevertheless, its fast pace, contrivances, jumble of characters and somewhat lost-in-translation plot make it difficult to fully appreciate.

Still, it's got an undeniable charm, plus humor and social commentary. Those elements, along with a likable lead performance by Amit Rahav (as an Orthodox Jew who will do anything to meet his "unacceptable" dream girl), will probably make it a crowd pleaser. But this critic never became fully engaged — pun intended.

click to enlarge 'June Zero' - film still courtesy CFJFF
film still courtesy CFJFF
'June Zero'

The Hebrew-language June Zero (3 ½ stars) continues the festival on Sunday at 11 a.m. at Enzian. An oddly structured but emotionally fulfilling historical drama of three people whose lives are woven together by the 1962 execution of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann, writer-director Jake Paltrow's film, inspired by real events, is the most original movie ever about the Nazi monster. It's the Robert Altman Nazi film he never made.

Over a slightly misshapen but nevertheless revelatory 105 minutes, we meet a prosecutor (Tom Hagi) who proved Eichmann's guilt, a jailer (Yoav Levi) who guarded him and a 13-year-old boy (talented newcomer Noam Ovadia) who, through unlikely circumstances, helped build the crematorium that burned him to ashes, like millions of his victims.

"I touched history. Or it touched me," the latter says. Now, 61 years after Eichmann's death, June Zero is touching history too.

click to enlarge 'Queen of the Deuce' - film still courtesy CFJFF
film still courtesy CFJFF
'Queen of the Deuce'

In a 180-degree tonal pivot, it should come as no surprise that a powerful player in New York City's pornography industry in the '60s and '70s was a tough-as-nails entrepreneur with mafia ties.

What's surprising is that entrepreneur was a gay female Holocaust survivor with an unbreakable devotion to her family.

And it's the family that is front and center in Queen of the Deuce (3 stars; 2 p.m. Sunday at Enzian), director Valerie Kontakos' documentary about Greek-born Chelly Wilson, who, following her pre-war escape from Europe, turned a hot-dog stand into property ownership into an empire of porn theaters and skin flicks.

Never quite weird or stylistic enough for its strange subject (despite the animated segments), Queen is an unconventional choice for the festival because it sometimes focuses more on porn than on Wilson. But the story is unique and ultimately illuminates not just an odd time in the history of 42nd Street ("the Deuce") but an unusual tale of the American Jewish experience.

Another strange, but entirely different, examination of Jewish culture can be found in the fourth film, The Other Widow (3 ½ stars), playing Monday at 4:15 p.m. at Enzian. Nominated for nine Israeli Oscars, writer-director Maayan Rypp's film exposes an undoubtedly common but rarely depicted grieving process: that of a mistress.

After her lover dies unexpectedly, Ella shows up at the shiva, at first troubled by the awkward situation and not sure what to say to the grieving wife. But she slowly comes to terms with her feelings, allowing herself to mourn in her own way. Dramatic and culturally insightful, but also surprisingly humorous and surreal, the Hebrew-language film feels slight at times but ultimately sticks with you thanks to Rypp's interesting portrait of a cultural outcast and the relatable performance of Dana Ivgy as said outcast.

click to enlarge 'Hummus Full Trailer' - film still courtesy CFJFF
film still courtesy CFJFF
'Hummus Full Trailer'

Switching to full comedy (with lots of action and violence), the fest continues at Enzian on Monday at 6:45 p.m. with its weakest offering, writer-director Asaf Kobrovsky's Hummus Full Trailer (1 ½ stars). A poor man's Tarantino flick, this frenetic and annoyingly overscored caper involves a mix-up of three shipping containers full of weapons, flowers and a portable brothel.

Yes, really. And the confusion almost turns deadly because the containers' recipients happen to be rival mafia families.

The plot makes little sense even if you can follow it, but that wouldn't matter if the film were funnier or less stylistically grating. (When will slow-motion musical interludes finally die?) It also helps if you know Hebrew and French, as the English subtitles are occasionally difficult to read. At least the title is appropriate, as the film is paced like a trailer and, like, hummus, is tasty in small doses but not meant for a meal.

The festival ends on Tuesday at 7 p.m., back at the Orlando Science Center, with Farewell, Mr. Haffmann (4 ½ stars), a World War II morality tale.

click to enlarge 'Farewell, Mr. Haffmann' is not just the best of this year's fest, it's one of the greatest ever screened during the event's quarter-century. - film still courtesy CFJFF
film still courtesy CFJFF
'Farewell, Mr. Haffmann' is not just the best of this year's fest, it's one of the greatest ever screened during the event's quarter-century.

As the Nazis invade Paris, Jewish jeweler Joseph Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil) sends his family away, hoping to join them after he secures their business.

To that end, he arranges a fake sale to a gentile employee (Gilles Lellouche), with the understanding that he'll get the shop back after the war. But when his escape fails, he, his employee and the employee's wife (Sara Giraudeau) are stuck in the same cramped quarters.

Director and co-writer Fred Cavayé weaves a claustrophobic, twisty tale of the best and worst of humanity, slowly ratcheting up the tension toward a stunning climax. This French-language drama is not just the best of this year's fest — it's one of the greatest ever screened during the event's quarter-century.

Tickets are $14 for one film, $78 for a series pass and $136 for a Mensch Pass, which provides priority seating. For more information, visit enzian.org.

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