While there are fewer films of interest than usual this holiday season, the offerings are particularly meaningful. Two biographical efforts are at the fore: “Jackie,” starring Israeli-born Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, is certain to generate Oscar buzz in several categories. And “Finding Babel” is a stirring documentary that follows the grandson of the noted writer Isaac Babel on a pilgrimage to learn about the author’s life and soul.
“Jackie” takes an intimate look at the emotions and actions of the former first lady during the week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The portrait rendered here is of a grieving, agonized, complicated and often contradictory woman who is very much in the public eye and who is alternately controlling and vulnerable. She is depicted as being obsessed with preserving her husband’s legacy.
In a recent interview, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim said he has always been fascinated by Jackie Kennedy. “My mother saved all the newspapers and magazines from the fall of 1963 and I was always haunted by the imagery of the funeral,” he said. “As I got older, my obsession with politics and American history grew deeper and I never felt Jackie got her proper due. She was the architect of Camelot. She understood intuitively the influence of television, the power of imagery and the nature of myth-making.”
The film is anchored by an interview that Jackie has granted to a reporter, referred to simply as The Journalist (Billy Crudup), who visits her at Hyannis Port, Mass., a week after her husband’s death. The interviewer challenges her at times, yet is tactful and manages to maintain a kind of equilibrium. Jackie, as played by Oscar-winner Portman (“Black Swan”), demands editorial control of the printed article and is, by turns, cynical, open, adversarial, guarded, manipulative, exposed and then self-protective. After emotionally reliving the assassination, she says, “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that.”
Oppenheim explained the image of Jackie that he was trying to create, which goes beyond the complexity of most people. “Like any public figure, there is an additional layer — who she was behind closed doors versus who she was while others were watching. What I admire most about her was her strength under the most extreme pressure imaginable.”
The interview is interspersed with flashbacks to the moment of the assassination, and there is also a replay of her earlier, televised tour of the White House, during which she explained that she wanted to imbue the residence with a sense of its history, and raised money to purchase artifacts and decorations that were used by its previous tenants.
But, as he indicated, Oppenheim was particularly concerned with stripping away the mask of dignified composure and control that characterized Jackie’s public image during her ordeal, and revealing her private hell. In one devastating section, there is a close-up of her looking in a mirror, sobbing hysterically and wiping her husband’s blood off her face, then taking a shower and washing her hair, which is totally saturated with his blood. In another scene she admits to a priest that her marriage was far from perfect, that she had many grievances, including the fact that she and President Kennedy rarely spent a night together.
But she also talks of loving him, and the film takes us behind the scenes to witness her machinations as she fights to make sure that her husband’s burial site and funeral will cement his place in history. We see her iron determination to march in a funeral procession, against the wishes of those in charge of security, who fear for her safety and that of visiting dignitaries from around the world.
In fashioning this private rendering of such a well-known woman, Oppenheim said he relied on an abundance of materials. “The movie is inspired and informed by a huge variety of primary sources — contemporaneous press accounts, notes and interviews stored at the Kennedy Library, books by various historians and first-person witnesses. Almost every moment is rooted in research. But, of course, it’s also a work of artistic interpretation. We imagine a great deal of it, but I’d call those creative liberties ‘very informed speculation.’ ”
He added that, although there has been a plethora of dramatic material on various aspects of the assassination, and although these events occurred many years ago, he believes his film is particularly timely.
“I do think this story is especially relevant right now amidst the national conversation we’re having about women’s role in politics and in other traditionally patriarchal realms,” he said. “Jackie has always been at the periphery of projects that depict her husband’s assassination. Whenever she’s been portrayed in popular culture, the focus has almost always been on her beauty, her sense of style, her reaction to her husband’s reported infidelities. I hope our film gives voice to her experience during a pivotal moment in history, and gives her credit for playing such an instrumental role in defining her husband’s legacy.”
Oppenheim concluded, “At critical moments in our history, flawed, complex human beings behaved heroically. And because of people like Jackie Kennedy, this country was able to survive extraordinary trauma and emerge with its spirit and institutions intact.”
“Jackie” opens Dec. 2.
A sculpture of Isaac Babel in “Finding Babel.” Photo courtesy of 7thArt Releasing
In the documentary “Finding Babel,” Andrei Malaev-Babel endeavors to learn about the once-celebrated and ultimately condemned grandfather he never met. His famous relative is Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, who is particularly known for “Red Cavalry,” a collection of stories drawn from his experiences in 1920, when he was embedded as a journalist with the Soviet Army during the Polish-Soviet War. In the stories, he reveals the atrocities committed by both sides. Another famous Babel effort is “The Odessa Tales,” a group of yarns about a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik.
An early supporter of the Russian Revolution, Babel became increasingly disillusioned with the communist state, and his disapproval often was reflected in his writings, a factor that helped lead to his downfall in the late 1930s. He became a victim of what was known as “The Great Terror,” a campaign of political repression, purges and censorship instituted by Joseph Stalin, and was arrested in 1939 on trumped-up charges that included treason and spying for France and Austria. In 1940, he was secretly executed.
According to director David Novack, Babel’s themes “echo universally and across time” by delving into humanity’s dual nature.
“He consistently has characters who are idolized on one hand and horrible on the other. He shows that in war, everyone sins even while everyone is human. He challenges revolution, asking difficult questions about the ends justifying the means, and later, about whether revolution even results in a better society,” he said. “He addresses the long-standing strained relations between Russians and Jews, as well as Russians and Ukrainians, creating a continuity of history for us that helps us see the current conflict with greater acuity.”
Novack added, “Most importantly, he reminds us that, as Aaron Lansky of the national Yiddish Book Center says, ‘Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth. For the tyrants, their truth is based in ideology and power. And for writers, it’s built in humanity.’ ”
The odyssey that is recorded in this documentary was spearheaded, as Malaev-Babel states in the film, by the death of his grandmother Antonina Pirozhkova in 2010 at the age of 101. She had been Isaac Babel’s common-law wife, had helped raise Andrei Malaev-Babel in the Soviet Union and instilled in him a love of the arts. As a young woman, she was known for her beauty, her ability as a civil engineer and her designs for some of the Moscow subway stations.
In the 1990s, long after Babel’s execution, Pirozhkova and the family relocated to the United States.
Malaev-Babel, who founded one of the first private professional theater companies in Russia, currently teaches acting in the Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training at Florida State University. He developed this documentary with Novack, who had interviewed Antonina when she was 94.
“I didn’t know what was to become of that interview,” Novack said. “I had read her memoir, ‘By His Side,’ and simply knew that this amazing woman with important stories had to be filmed.” According to Novack, the footage remained in a drawer, untouched, for eight years.
“In September of 2010,” he continued, “I read of her passing in The New York Times and phoned Andrei to express my condolences. He declared that he was planning to make this journey and thought that filming it might be worthwhile.
“On a more personal level, my great-great uncle was a famous composer of Jewish liturgical music at Odessa’s Brody Synagogue (David Nowakowsky) and I had already traveled extensively to Odessa, Babel’s hometown and the city where he is most revered. The music of the Brody is, in fact, mentioned several times in ‘The Odessa Tales.’ So I have a personal connection to this history as well, and it almost seemed like forces beyond my understanding would once again bring me deeper into my own family’s story. It was bashert!”
Novack got a chance to use portions of his interview with Antonina when he was structuring the documentary. He also uses the voice of actor Liev Schreiber to represent Isaac Babel and to read passages from the author’s stories, often illustrating the excerpts on-screen through animations that have the quality of paintings.
The project took them to numerous locations that are linked with Babel’s life and work. They visited Odessa, where they attended a celebration as a statue of the writer was being unveiled. They also went to Paris; L’vov, Ukraine; and Moscow, among other significant places.
Novack remembered that the day they filmed at the writers colony Peredelkino, where Babel had his summer house and where he was arrested, was particularly difficult.
“It began with the visit to the monastery (formerly Sukhanovka Prison), where Babel was tortured and ended with being shut out from Babel’s property (the summer house) by scary, violent goons. Back in our borrowed apartment later that night, (Malaev-Babel) opened the computer to look at his grandmother’s interview. That was a hard and a deeply emotional day.”
Regarding the reasons for Babel’s persecution, there are those who attribute it to the fact that he was having an affair with the woman who was married to the head of the Soviet secret police. But Novack feels that explanation is too simplistic, and there were many other reasons for Babel’s downfall.
“For one, he was a Jew and Jews did not fare well during the purges, although many were sent to gulags and not executed,” Novack said. “Prior to his arrest, Stalin had been using Babel as a face of the Popular Front, a campaign to send highly cultured Soviets abroad, drumming up support against fascism. The French communist writers adored Babel and likely protected him from 1935 on. In 1939, when Stalin signed the nonaggression pact with Hitler, he abandoned the communists in France and Spain, and Babel lost his protection. He was arrested weeks later.
“Also, Stalin had it in for Babel for 15 years,” Novack continued. “The ‘Red Cavalry’ stories embarrassed Stalin, as they told a brutal tale of a terrible military campaign that was lost in the end. Stalin was the general in charge of the area during that war. And then there’s the question of his subversive works. Babel’s works were subversive from the beginning, but they seemed to grow more so as time went on. His play, ‘Maria,’ was shut down by the authorities during dress rehearsals in 1935, and it was a scathing look at the unanticipated results of revolution.”
After his execution, Babel’s existence was virtually erased. His work was no longer available, and his name was removed from all other publications. It wasn’t until the 1950s and the administration of Nikita Khrushchev that Babel was “rehabilitated” and found innocent of all charges. However, the entire truth of his execution, cremation and burial in a mass grave was revealed only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
To this day much remains hidden. While the head archivist of the Federal Security Service in Russia helped obtain permission for the crew to film in the KGB archives and provided access to one of Babel’s prison files, he could not produce another file that detailed the day-to-day events, including Babel’s interrogations. In addition, some 24 folders of Babel’s unpublished works are nowhere to be found.
Novack hopes his film will inspire audiences to read Babel with a deeper understanding of his essence and his themes, and to appreciate Babel’s warnings about rising authoritarianism, so that they will have their eyes wide open to what that looks like, anywhere in the world.
“I hope they will come to understand that historical events do not happen in a vacuum — they are part of a continuum, and only by recognizing the past openly and honestly can a nation progress or a conflict work toward resolution,” the director said. “And lastly, I hope they will recognize Isaac Babel for the genius that he was: the master of the short-story form, whose prose is pure poetry and whose tragic death was a loss to humanity.”
“Finding Babel” opens Dec. 2.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star in this film, supposedly based on a true story, about a Canadian intelligence officer (Pitt) who falls in love with a fighter for the French Resistance (Cotillard) in 1942, as both go behind German lines on assignment to assassinate a German official. The two reunite in London, marry and have a child. But when Pitt’s character is told that his wife is a German spy and he must kill her or be executed for disobeying orders, he becomes desperate to prove her innocence. Opens Nov. 23.
Based on the book “Boston Strong,” the movie deals with the frantic search for the Boston Marathon bombers before they can strike again. Mark Wahlberg stars as a Boston police sergeant, along with John Goodman as the Boston police commissioner and Kevin Bacon as the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field office. Opens Dec. 21.
“Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria”
Through archival film and interviews with World War II survivors, this documentary tells a story about the Sephardic Jews who lived peacefully alongside Christians in the city of Kastoria, Greece, until the community was invaded by Axis armies in 1940. At first, Italian forces occupied the city, and the Jews remained in relative safety. But with Benito Mussolini’s fall, the Germans took over, and the Jewish residents faced a dire fate.
Opens Nov. 25.
Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria”