The Boston Jewish Film Festival saves one of its best films, Mabul, for last, and some final thoughts on this year’s line-up of movies.
By Joann Green Breuer.
“Neighbors Near and Far” is this year’s cut line for the 23rd Boston Jewish Film Festival (BJFF). Congratulations are certainly due for its longevity and general quality, along with sympathy for its effort to come up with a new cut line, even if it makes more politically correct sense than it does semantic sense.
This is the final installment in my overview of a selection of the BJFF fare. The festival ended on November 15th, so I offer a summing up of my impressions. My comments will be brusque, partly because the BJFF no longer supplies a program with attributions to artistic contributors to the films: casts, designers, editors, etc. Financial contributors to the festival, however, are clearly listed.
Part One of BJFF reviews.
The verses of Noah are more than metaphor in Guy Nattiv’s painful, personal, cinematic chamber concert, Mabul (flood). We sense early in the film that these Biblical verses can be redemptive and bless the possibility that they may.
On the edge of the Mediterranean, the family at the heart of this film, and I do mean heart, strain against circumstance and self pity, against lassitude and responsibility, against the urge not to love. Younger brother Yoni, at the cusp of adulthood, about to be a bar mitzvah, is buffeted by the failings of others and his own contradictory gifts and instincts: miniature Shylock, rueful Jeremiah, jocund Noah. His heightened perceptiveness far exceeds his diminutive size; his pronouncements far deeper than his unchanged voice. He cries into the wind and to those around him as he can, and when words and sound are spent his eyes are language enough.
Yoni’s father’s pilot’s license is suspended. Never again will he swoop to spray crops or sky-salute his son. Our first view of father and son is of their vulnerable bare feet. Nattiv can make even toes matter. Yoni’s mother is the too exuberant, pre-school teacher, dancing after imaginary butterflies with other mothers’ children. She never danced with her older son, Tomer. Suspended in autism, Tomer concentrates on crawling, creeping insects, torticollis twisting his gaze, forever turned away from the eyes of his family and his own so limited potential.
Somehow someone must create the ark to hold this trio from drowning in desperation and preserve the one who will never comprehend desperation. There is an actual, little boat grounded in the family’s disintegrating barn. Yoni can make it sway. Imagination must be flotation enough. The warm waters of a corner shower must suffice to rinse away the grime and gore from Tomer’s body and from his mother’s tender, tortured agony. Tears are as salty as the sea. The power of the humane instinct to protect is as relentless as the power of the sea’s waves. As the waters press forward and retreat, so mother, father, brother, lover, and friend press toward each other, retreat, cycling like the tide. The uniformly excellent cast of Mobul includes Shmil Ben Ari, Yakov Cohen, Ronit Elkabez , Lana Ettinger, and Michael Moshonov.
Nattiv’s camera is more of a character than a witness, bearing in on facial feature with extreme close ups, held and held, as if to see beyond the skin, sweat, saliva, to perceive a soul. More: to want to, to need to. A hand held camera jostles its path before and beside children chasing and being chased, youth destined for imminent injury. Attention must be paid, and is—a daring and intimate aesthetic. Bitterness and vulnerability, sound and silence are ferocious, nourishing, fateful tides, battering, burdening, and binding these arresting, damaged lives and loves. Mabul floods our consciousness and our conscience.
Summary of this year’s BJFF
One thematic line crosses and compensates through this year’s series: the arts as saving grace, partially vanquishing the darkness of a child’s limitation (Kaddish for a Friend) or history’s malfeasance (In Another Lifetime, Intimate Grammar). Sometimes fiction trumps documentary: Breath Made Visible and the far more engaging Deaf Jam substitute hagiography for honest assessment. A trio of films examining autism display more truth in fiction than through documentary: the pollyanna-ness of the non-fiction Dolphin Boy is countered by the complexity and poignant charm of the marvelous TV series Yellow Peppers, the accidents of fate and foible in Dusk, and the incessant moral and emotional quandaries of Mabul, the final (and my favorite) film.
Past years’ frequent travelogues to Grandads’ visits to Shoah-devastated Shtetls have been supplanted by fictional fairy tales, sometimes with silly glee, Prima Primavera, and sometimes to a ridiculous extreme, such as the plot of My Best Enemy. Standing Silent, however, does reach documentary respectability that the fictional The Day I Saw Your Heart eschews.
Fictions, however nonsensical, do offer an opportunity for professionalism in acting and cinematography, and the opportunity for a critic to be impartially negative without seeming mean-spirited. There is much of such professionalism in this series, save in the selection of short films and a couple of features, identifiable by omission from my round-up. I regret that there were no belly laughs, no delight in irony, no spinning of tragedy into piercing farce as happened on rare but delightful occasion in previous years. I missed that traditionally Jewish sensibility, the fiddler on the roof of the burning house, making joyful sound in a minor key. Instead, there was a surprising dose of Talmud argument and Torah metaphor. Context and content, rather than dependence on a particular Jewish-born writer or director, gave this Boston Jewish Film Festival a rightful name in a far more justifiable way than in previous years.
One audience caveat follows: waiting to see a film can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, particularly out of doors in inclement weather. Depending on the venue, a non-member can pick up a ticket before a member; there is no member priority line or no line at all—just a crush. Venue and festival blame each other for inconveniences. Perhaps more considerate negotiations between them can resolve at least some of the difficulties for future years.