East Bay International Jewish Film Festival Reviews

Both for ourselves and for our readers, we wanted to learn about the history, challenges, offerings, and future of the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival prior to beginning our review of several early film showings. Our research included the pleasure of interviewing the Director, Riva Gambert (written up on this site) and Festival Co-Chair Margaret Winter.

This 24th year of the festival brings the most enriching feature films, shorts, and documentaries. From over 150 of the best films with Jewish themes from countries around the world, the choices were carefully screened by a diverse committee representing many cultures. This year, several East Bay premieres include a Danish historical drama, A Fortunate Man, the comedy Stockholm, and the Israeli/Ethiopian war-period drama Fig Tree, as well as a tribute to the memory of Stan Lee, superhero creator of Captain America (see EBIJFF for brief description).  Based on those reviewed below and others that we’ve heard about, the film offerings at the festival are very strong.

The films we viewed are: Disobedience, Budapest Noir, Promise At Dawn, and Carl Laemmle.

(1) Disobedience takes place in an orthodox community in London. Actress Rachel Weisz returns for her father’s funeral.  She visits her childhood friend portrayed by Rachel McAdams. They risk their reputations and test their faith probing their relationship as women who are attracted to one another sexually. Alessandro Nivolo, as McAdam’s husband and the third member of their trio, gives an excellent, nuanced and complex performance.

This muted and understated film takes place in a grey-skyed and gloomy looking London. It explores a number of ethical dilemmas, and a variety of viewpoints about and reactions to the duties and roles of men and women within this closed community where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

The overall feel of the movie is one of repression and suffocation, but some of the characters show unanticipated support and understanding. Realistic depictions of contemporary issues reflect complex emotions that sometimes feel old-fashioned and predictable, but other times unexpected. It is a very well crafted movie that will appeal to those with interest in the topic.

(2) Budapest Noir, a thrilling Hungarian murder mystery and historical drama, opens with the funeral of the Prime Minister, but crime reporter, Zsigmond Gordon, focuses on the death of a beautiful young woman found with a Jewish prayer book in her purse. Despite powerful, high-placed forces trying to scare him away, he digs deeply into the underworld of brothels, pornographers and communist cells.

The haunting blues score sets the noir tone in this complicated story in which everyone has something to hide. The usual themes abound – corruption in government and business, sleazy underworld activities, and complex personal relationships with a shadowy reporter and his sometime girlfriend photographer.

This atmospheric period piece with an interesting storyline and visuals is set in the 1930s at the time when Hungary is turning fascist.  It could be more easily followed and better appreciated with slower moving subtitles, but it’s intriguing in any case. A definite must for viewers that love Humphrey Bogart, the Philip Marlow mysteries, and movies like L.A. Confidential and Chinatown.

(3) Promise At Dawn reveals the life of French novelist, Romain Gary, played as a young boy by Pawel Puchalski and as a man by Pierre Niney. This romantic historical drama depicts, at its center, his mother’s unwavering support and outsize dreams. Spanning the years of the 1920s-1950s, and the action moves from his growing up in the Russian Empire; to World War II France, Africa, and England; and ultimately to Mexico.

To what lengths will an overbearing Jewish mother go in an anti-Semitic environment to protect a growing son? What effect does a mother’s expectations and deceptions have on a young man’s psyche? His mother’s unending involvement in his life drove Gary’s development.

Follow this real-life odyssey through beautifully photographed scenes of snow, desert, swamp, and cool blue Mediterranean waves. With superb acting by Charlotte Gainsbourg as the domineering mother, witness heartwarming, gutwrenching, heroic and laugh-out-loud moments. Empathize with a future literary giant and his devoted cash-strapped mother as she cleverly outmaneuvers those who would limit her.  Admire how she promotes her son toward glory even from beyond the grave.

(4) Carl Laemmle documents the ”rags to riches” life of the founder of Universal Studios. A poor German-Jewish immigrant, he innovates his way organizing a film company and is the first movie mogul to establish a studio in Hollywood. As his swan song, he saves hundreds of Germans from Hitler’s grasp by signing affidavits for them to emigrate.

The documentary is told largely chronologically, using a combination of historical footage and stills, along with commentaries from film historians, descendents, and historians. While documentaries can be dry, this one moves with pace and reveals so much to viewers interested in the subject that it flies by. To say that it is a paean is an understatement, but when you see what he accomplished and the values he lived by, you can’t help but appreciate this 5’2” dynamo.

A groundbreaking visionary, gambler, and feminist, he worked his way from Germany to New York in 1884. Rising from menial jobs, it wasn’t until the age of 40 that he anticipated the potential of film, first through nickelodeons, as a democratic medium to bring some fun into the lives of work-a-day people. He faced obstacles.  A significant sidebar of the movie concerns Thomas Edison, who we know as the inspired and persistent inventor. Laemmle knew him as the relentless monopolist who sued Laemmle over 200 times. The frivolousness of the suits is evidenced by the fact that all failed.

Living his motto, “it can be done,” he exercised gender equality by his hiring practices, simultaneously employing 11 female directors, and promoted race equality by producing controversial pictures like Show Boat and Imitation of Life which shed favorable light on African-Americans. His All Quiet on the Western Front is often cited as the most powerful anti-war film ever.  He created the horror genre with Dracula and Frankenstein, and the star system by giving actors screen credits, beginning with Mary Pickford.

Although small in stature,  “Uncle Carl” was big of heart.  Among other contributions, and despite anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, he wrote affidavits and guaranteed financial support for 300 Jews to bring them to America and save them from the Holocaust.  As was once said of him, “He gave us make believe monsters and saved people from real ones.”  Less well known than movie mogul contemporaries like Fox and the Warners, Carl Laemmle was a man of integrity that you will appreciate knowing more about.