Summer film preview: Art, identity, violence and heroism

This summer’s film offerings are heavily sprinkled with foreign fare, much of it dealing with issues of ethnic identity, fundamentalism and genocide.
June 1, 2015

This summer’s film offerings are heavily sprinkled with foreign fare, much of it dealing with issues of ethnic identity, fundamentalism and genocide.

But art is the focus of the Russian movie “Chagall-Malevich,” a work of magical realism by filmmaker Aleksandr Mitta that highlights the competing styles of iconic Jewish artist Marc Chagall (Leonid Bichevin) and Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Belyy). The story follows Chagall from his birth to Chasidic parents, during a fire set by arsonists in the impoverished Jewish quarter of their Russian town, to Paris, where he enjoys some success as an artist, and then back to Russia and his marriage to Bella Rosenfeld (Kristina Schneidermann), the love of his life, with whom he has a daughter.

He establishes the Academy of Modern Art in his hometown of Vitebsk. When Malevich is invited to join the school’s faculty, a schism develops between the two painters, based on their diametrically opposed styles and artistic philosophies, and the rivalry is reflected in the attitude of the students, most of them siding with Malevich.

The action unfolds against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution that followed, the film depicting the influence of those historic events on the practice of art in Russia.

The movie is replete with replicas of Chagall’s colorful, fanciful, surreal work, much of it renderings of images from his early life in a Russian village, contrasted with the geometric abstractions of Malevich, who dubbed his style “Suprematism.”

In the press material, director Mitta is quoted as saying, “I’m very fond of Chagall. I admire Malevich for his radical thinking. He opened new horizons in art. I wanted to make a movie about them for a very long time. All characters of the film convey different ideas. Chagall symbolizes one idea. Malevich — another one. My film represents the struggle of these ideas in a tangle of emotions and desires at the moment when life is worth nothing, and art means everything.”

“Chagall-Malevich” opens June 19.

Michael Moshonov in “A Borrowed Identity.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

A coming-of-age identity crisis is the central theme of “A Borrowed Identity” by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree”).

In Riklis’ latest effort, Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), an Israeli Arab and exceptional student, is accepted into a prestigious Jewish boarding school. Although some members of his family express anti-Israel anger, Eyad rarely, if ever, gives voice to militant sentiments. We watch him try to fit in among young Jewish students who have entirely different frames of reference.

As part of his school’s social service requirements, he helps care for Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), a young Jewish student suffering from muscular dystrophy, and the two boys grow close. Eyad also forges a bond with Jonathan’s mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis).

When he falls in love with a Jewish girl and their relationship is revealed, he leaves the school. Eyad comes to realize that his Arab identity is holding him back from being accepted and advancing in Israeli society, and he obtains Edna’s help in making a life-altering decision.

Riklis, who is Jewish, writes in the production notes that living in the Middle East is a question of identity. “All of us here have a long history behind us, claims to the land, spiritual and religious bonds, fear, terror, moments of grace, hope and hatred, which have split people and nations here for far too long.”

“A Borrowed Identity” opens July 3.

Preeti Gupta in “Unfreedom.” Photo courtesy of Dark Frames

Issues of ethnic identity give way to those of religious and sexual identity in the Indian movie “Unfreedom,” which marks the directorial debut of Raj Amit Kumar. The film contains two divergent stories, each embracing themes of brutal intolerance, largely emanating from fundamentalist ideology. One story focuses on Husain (Bhanu Uday), a radical Muslim terrorist who travels to New York on a mission to silence the liberal, tolerant Muslim scholar Fareed (Victor Banerjee). Husain finally takes Fareed hostage and goes on a savage rampage, but he never succeeds in arousing a vengeful response from the professor.

The other story takes place in New Delhi. Leela (Preeti Gupta) is a beautiful young woman who desperately resists the marriage her father, Devraj (Adil Hussain), a police officer, has arranged for her. It turns out Leela is in love with another woman, the bisexual, uninhibited artist Sakhi (Bhavani Lee). The two women run off together but are eventually caught by the police and find themselves in a threatening situation.

The film has been banned by the Central Board of Film Certification in India, where the highest court ruled in 2013 that a law from the colonial era making homosexuality a crime, subject to as many as 10 years in prison, will remain in effect.

During an interview with the New Indian Express Group, Kumar said that though he was not oblivious to the controversy his film would stir up, he was not prepared for such “extreme” reactions. The article continues: “But Kumar is not taking this lying down. Last week, he started an online signature campaign on the film’s website to protest film censorship. He is also working with legal representatives in drafting a petition to submit to the Delhi High Court arguing the ban.”

“Unfreedom” opens May 29.

Adi in the documentary “The Look of Silence.” Photo by Lars Skree

From issues of identity and ethnicity, we move to the aftermath of the 1965 Indonesian genocide with Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence,” a companion piece to his 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing.”

In both films, we witness perpetrators of mass murders proudly re-enacting their killing sprees. Oppenheimer’s current movie focuses on Adi, an optometrist, who confronts former killers or their families while examining them in their homes. Adi’s older brother had been viciously murdered during the genocide, and Adi faces the murderers intently, but calmly, while fitting them for lenses, as Oppenheimer films the encounters. Most of those who Adi questions freely admit their part in the slaughter and are even boastful of their roles in the purges, which they describe in horrifying detail. Many of them are prospering and are well connected in present-day Indonesia.

In the production notes, Oppenheimer writes about one of the scenes he filmed: “Two former death squad leaders lead me along a road and down to the banks of North Sumatra’s Snake River, re-enacting with apparent glee how they helped the army kill 10,500 people at a single clearing on the riverbank. At the end, they pose for snapshots — souvenirs of what for them was a happy and memorable afternoon out. Experiencing one of the most traumatic days of my life, I knew I would make two companion films.”

Interspersed with the blatant re-enactments are scenes with Adi’s mother, who cares for her aged, invalid husband. As she relates her memories of those dark days, we view the atrocities from the point of view of survivors whose loved ones were victimized and who have remained silent about the crime for too long.

Oppenheimer writes: “ ‘The Look of Silence’ is, I hope, a poem about a silence born of terror — a poem not only about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence — a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken.

“Nothing will wake the dead. We must stop, acknowledge the lives destroyed, and strain to listen to the silence that follows.”

“The Look of Silence” opens July 24.

Tahar Rahim in “The Cut.” Photo by Gordon Muehle/Strand Releasing

An odyssey resulting from the Armenian genocide of 1915 is the subject of “The Cut,” by filmmaker Fatih Akin.

A young blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) is taken by the Turks in a roundup of all of the city’s Armenian men. He endures atrocities perpetrated by Turkish police and then by soldiers of fortune and ex-cons. After surviving a mass execution that leaves him mute, he finds out that the women and children have been driven out of his home village.

A few years pass, and eventually he learns that his daughters are still alive. The film then becomes something of a road movie, taking Nazaret from Lebanon, to Cuba, to Florida, to Minneapolis and finally to North Dakota in search of his daughters. During his wandering, he meets some kind and generous people who give him help and refuge, but he also comes across some of humanity’s worst specimens.

Ultimately, however, the film is a testament to a father’s love and to what the human spirit is capable of achieving.

Akin, whose parents are Turkish, states in the press notes that his film is set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, but it’s not actually a story about the genocide. “I’ve taken traumatic historical events — which have yet to be examined and dealt with — and integrated them into a story.  In ‘The Cut’ the line between good and evil is not always clear-cut.”

“The Cut” opens in limited release on Aug. 7.

Ed Pincus in the documentary “One Cut, One Life.” Photo by Lucia Small

Commenting on his final film, “One Cut, One Life,” made with collaborator Lucia Small before his death in 2013, noted documentarian Ed Pincus is quoted as saying, “This film is the culmination of my life’s work.”

The movie focuses on how Pincus and Small deal with death. One of Small’s friends had been murdered in 2009, and a short time later, another friend was run down and killed by someone trying to escape from the police. Pincus was diagnosed with leukemia and knew he was terminal.

As the two filmmakers explore from their differing perspectives such basic issues as love, loss, the meaning of life and what is really important about the human condition, they are also examining the way each uses the process of making a film as a means of coping with life’s pain.

“One Cut, One Life” opens June 12.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, 1917, from “Rosenwald.”

Jewish philanthropist and civil rights activist Julius Rosenwald is the subject of the documentary “Rosenwald.” Filmmaker Aviva Kempner details the life and activities of this man, who never finished high school yet went on to become president of Sears. She illustrates how Rosenwald put his belief in tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) into such charitable acts as supporting the NAACP and helping to build more than 5,300 schools for African-American students in the South during the early 20th century.  Among the alumni of those schools are Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson, and ancestors of attorney Anita Hill, Tony-winning playwright and director George C. Wolfe and United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The movie won the 2015 Lipscomb University Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Nashville Film Festival, given to directors “who have succeeded in portraying actions or human experiences sensitizing viewers to spiritual, human or social values.”

“Rosenwald” opens Aug. 28.

Oliver Gruber  in “Father Rupert Mayer.”

We conclude with a tale of heroism. Damian Chapa’s “Father Rupert Mayer” tells the true story of a violin-playing priest (played by Oliver Gruber), head of the Catholic Church in Bavaria, who denounced the Nazis during World War II and was persecuted for his stand. In the film, Mayer expresses a loving piety even as a child and, as a young priest, exhibits a warm and understanding attitude toward his Jewish neighbors.

Mayer serves as a chaplain in World War I and, true to his faith, refuses to fire a gun, although his unit is being attacked in a foxhole.  Years later, as Hitler is coming to power, he courageously speaks out against the rising tide of Nazism.

He is arrested numerous times and then sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Among the stars in the film are Daryl Hannah as an American art collector who persuades attorney Donna Von Bayern (Nicola Mayerl) to aid a Jewish artist in his escape from Germany, and Stacy Keach as a German colonel and Von Bayern’s father, the person she begs to help free the priest.

Ultimately, a United States Army officer (Chapa) is sent to free Father Mayer.

“Father Rupert Mayer” opens May 28.

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