November 20, 2018

Reeling in the summer

This summer brings an eclectic group of films to local screens, many featuring specifically Jewish protagonists and covering such disparate subjects as a fundamentalist revolution, a revolutionary TV programmer, the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, religiosity and coming of age in the 1950s.

“Septembers of Shiraz” 

Australian director Wayne Blair explores the devastating effect of the Iranian revolution on a secular Jewish family during the early 1980s in “Septembers of Shiraz,” adapted from the award-winning book of the same title by Dalia Sofer. As the film depicts, after the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the rage and resentment of the Iranian underclass was directed against the wealthy, the Jews, the intellectuals and anyone who had been in any way connected to the Shah’s family. When the mob and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Islamic fundamentalism became the law of the land, and with it came repression, torture, executions and capricious arrests. Those who felt persecuted under the Shah had now taken power, and started to mimic and even surpass the tyranny of their predecessor.

Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) stars as Isaac Amin, a prosperous gemologist and jewelry merchant who is arrested without warning on vague charges of spying for Israel. While in prison, he is physically and emotionally tortured, and it becomes obvious that his interrogator, who himself had been tortured when the Shah held power, is envious of Isaac’s privileged life and enraged that Isaac accepted the social and political structure of the previous regime.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s wife, Farnez (Salma Hayek), a strong, assertive woman, tries in vain to get him released as she watches her entire life disintegrate. Her house is stripped of valuables, employees of her husband start stealing the jewels from his business, and she is powerless to stop what is happening. Among the thieves is the son of her housekeeper, Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a Muslim woman who is loyal to the family but starts to believe some of the charges made by the revolutionaries against the former elites.

After turning over his life’s savings, Isaac is released, but he and his family must flee the country, leaving behind everything they still possess, if they are to have any hope of survival.

Blair said one reason he was drawn to the story was that, at its core, it deals with the importance of family. “Family is close to my heart. [During] my own upbringing, I traveled a great deal with my immediate family, as my father was in the military. When he retired and we settled in our hometown, I was around my mother and father’s extended family even more. That meant the world to me.” 

And, producer Alan Siegel predicted, “Audiences will sit at the edge of their seats. It’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride that also has a deep meaning for today.” 

“Septembers of Shiraz” opens June 24.


“Tikkun” explores issues of determinism, Orthodoxy and sexual repression. According to Israeli filmmaker Avishai Sivan, who is quoted in the media notes, the word “tikkun” means “improvement” in everyday Hebrew, but on a deeper level, “tikkun” has a more metaphysical meaning. Sivan says belief in reincarnation can be found in Judaism, and the term “refers to a soul returning to the living world in order to rectify an unresolved issue from its past life.”

The film takes place in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, and it focuses on Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a brilliant yeshiva student who is so devout that he fasts to repent for dropping his prayer boxes. One night, the sexually repressed young man is tempted to masturbate in the bathtub when he collapses, hitting his head against the back of the tub. The paramedics can’t revive him and pronounce him dead, but his father (Khalifa Natour) frantically tries to resuscitate him, and, mysteriously, Haim-Aaron comes back to life. However, he is completely changed. Unable to sleep at night, he takes to wandering the streets and falling asleep during the day in yeshiva class. He begins to tentatively explore the secular world and even accompanies an acquaintance to a brothel, though he can’t bring himself to have sex with the prostitute whom he has just paid. He also announces that he will no longer eat meat, an insult to his father, who is a kosher butcher in a slaughterhouse.

Shot in black-and-white, the movie begins to verge on the surreal as the father comes to fear he has thwarted destiny by reviving his son. 

“Tikkun” is tentatively scheduled to open in Los Angeles June 17.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in “Indignation”

Another Jewish boy from the East is the central character in “Indignation,” based on Philip Roth’s 2008 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. The movie depicts college life in the 1950s and centers on Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), son of a kosher butcher shop owner in Newark, N.J. Marcus escapes the Korean War draft by means of a scholarship courtesy of his synagogue to Winesburg College, a small school in Ohio.

While Marcus is happy to be free from his smothering father, he is uninterested in college social life or in forming close friendships, preferring to focus on his studies. However, the independent-minded Marcus encounters some new, unexpected experiences, including anti-Semitism and an infuriating requirement to attend weekly chapel. He also experiences his first sexual encounter, along with his first love.

Writer, producer and film company executive James Schamus (he earned an Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) makes his directorial debut with this film. Schamus is quoted in the production notes as saying, “It was a real limbo time after World War II. The sexual revolution was yet to come, anti-communism and the Blacklist were in the news, and teenage culture, as we know it, was just around the corner. Meanwhile there’s another massive war going overseas. Our characters are really struggling to find themselves in that landscape.”

Variety’s chief international film critic, Peter Debruge, praised the movie, writing in his review at Sundance earlier this year, “ ‘Indignation’ unfolds at a certain distance, both in maturity and time: Schamus may not have lived the era, the way Roth did, but he channels the ’50s still-conservative mentality convincingly enough, hitting the novel’s tragic final note ever so delicately, devastating those drawn in by Marcus and his dreams.”

Roth, who attended the premiere of “Indignation” at Sundance, called it “the most faithful adaptation” of one of his works he’s seen.

“Indignation” opens July 29.

“The Tenth Man”

“The Tenth Man,” directed by Daniel Burman, tells the story of a man’s return to his observant Jewish roots. Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) has been living in New York and enjoying a successful career as an economist but has distanced himself from his background. He returns to the Jewish section of Buenos Aires, Argentina, known as El Once, where he was raised, in part to introduce his father, Usher (played by himself), and the rest of his family, to his fiancée, a dancer who is supposed to follow him to Buenos Aires after she completes an audition. 

During his visit, Ariel gets pulled into helping at his father’s market and performing certain duties for his father’s charitable Jewish foundation. While Ariel keeps trying to meet with him, Usher remains elusive and constantly involved in aid projects. The situation brings back Ariel’s feelings of being neglected as a child when his father attended to his charitable activities. 

While Ariel remembers wanting more of his father’s attention when he was a child, Ariel also finds himself brought back emotionally to the way of life of his formative years.

As Ariel draws closer to his heritage and to the community he left behind, he also draws closer to Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), an Orthodox, silent and beguiling woman who works for Usher’s foundation.

Burman explains in the media notes how he and Usher, a real person heading a real foundation, met for the first time. The two were on a pilgrimage to visit the graves of Sadikin, Jewish mystics of the 17th and 18th centuries who, according to legend, had a direct connection to God. Burman says there was something about Usher that he found fascinating.

“This feeling only grew when I learned more about his kingdom, his army of volunteers, that mysterious world of people giving without a special satisfaction beyond something provided by the fact of doing what needs to be done, as part of a particular logic of aid. In the foundation, the others who are being helped are not an undifferentiated mass that needs just anything. The help there is about the uniqueness of each individual. In order to give somebody exactly what he needs, there has to be an intention to understand why he needs this and nothing else. That world captivated me.” 

“The Tenth Man” opens in August, exact release date TBA.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer“

Burghart Klauner in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer”

Argentina is also a major element in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” a docudrama about German-Jewish prosecutor Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klauner), who is credited with locating Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of arranging the deportation of vast numbers of Jews to death camps before he became a fugitive after the war.

The film opens in 1957, when Bauer has returned to Germany from Denmark and Sweden after World War II and makes it his mission to expose and prosecute former Nazi officials, many of whom are now prospering in business or holding positions in the German government. But members of the current government block Bauer’s efforts at every turn, either because they don’t want their past Nazi activities exposed or don’t want to relive Germany’s crimes.

One day, Bauer receives a letter from Argentina written by the father of a girl who is dating Eichmann’s son. The letter reveals that Eichmann is living incognito in Buenos Aires.

Bauer is passionately anxious to have Eichmann extradited and put on trial in Germany,  but his goals are again thwarted by German authorities who are former National Socialists. So Bauer is forced to enlist the aid of the Israeli Mossad, an act tantamount to treason and punishable by imprisonment.

After verifying Eichmann’s identity, the Mossad does capture him, but Bauer’s desire to have him tried in Germany is overridden by those at the highest levels of government in Israel, the United States and Germany, so Eichmann is prosecuted and hanged in Israel.

It was only after Bauer’s death in 1968 that his part in finding Eichmann was revealed.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Aug. 19.

Also of interest: 

“Agnus Dei” (The Innocents) is a French-Polish movie directed by Anne Fontaine (“How I Killed My Father”) that tells the almost-unknown story of Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who took care of concentration camp survivors in Warsaw right after World War II. When a nun shows up to her clinic and begs for her help at a convent, Pauliac discovers several pregnant nuns, one of whom is about to give birth. A nonbeliever herself, Pauliac finds the nuns becoming more and more dependent on her in the tragic aftermath of war. Opens July 1.

“The Kind Words” is an Israeli film about a woman and her two brothers who get a shock after their mother dies and they learn that she had been having a long-term affair with an Algerian. Fearing their real father may have been a Muslim, the three travel from Israel to Paris and Marseilles to seek out the truth.  Opens July 1. 

“Life, Animated” is a documentary about Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who never spoke until he learned to engage with the world by continually watching Disney films, such as “The Lion King.” The films inspired him to empathize and identify with characters outside of himself. Opens July 8.

“Café Society,” Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, is about a young man from the Bronx who tries to succeed in the glamorous world of Hollywood during the 1930s. Opens July 15.