December 10, 2019

Jewish themes resonate in foreign-language-film Oscar race

The annual Academy Award competition for best foreign-language (non-English) film has been described as the World Cup or Olympics of international cinema, and this year, each of 81 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Vietnam, has entered its best movie.

Despite the usual pundits’ predictions of public “Holocaust fatigue,” two films, both tagged as front-runners to garner the prize, focus on the Holocaust and its aftermath.

One more entry deals with the conflict between Palestinians and Jews, and another with the popular topic of a strictly Orthodox woman rebelling against her upbringing.

Three additional films are of some Jewish interest.

By rare critical consensus, “Son of Saul” is seen as leading the field. In this Hungarian movie, Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the SS, believes he recognizes one body as that of his son.

As the Sonderkommando men plan a rebellion, Saul vows he will save the child’s corpse from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper funeral.

Saul is portrayed by Geza Rohrig, born in Budapest and founder of an underground punk band during communist rule. Moving to New York, he studied at a Chasidic yeshiva and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Also favored to rank among the five finalists is the German entry, “Labyrinth of Lies.” Set in the postwar 1950s, when most Germans preferred to deny or ignore the Holocaust, the film focuses on a young German prosecutor determined to bring the Nazis who ran Auschwitz to trial before a German court.

Canada is staking its hope on “Felix & Meira,” a French-language film with an admixture of Yiddish, set in Montreal. The movie’s Meira is a young, married Orthodox woman, who leaves her community after starting a romance with Felix, a gentile French-Canadian.

Meira is portrayed by Hadas Yaron, a 25-year-old Israeli actress who previously starred in the Israeli movie “Fill the Void,” also playing a young Orthodox woman who faces an agonizing choice.

“Baba Joon” breaks new ground as the first Israeli film whose dialogue is almost entirely in Farsi. At its center are three generations of Iranian Jews who run a turkey farm in the northern Negev.

 Asher Avrahami and Navid Negahban in “Baba Joon.” 

The film’s central conflict is between the second-generational father, who is now in charge of the farm and sticks to the traditions and paternal discipline he experienced as a child, and his son, who rebels against the old-country ways.

“Baba Joon” is well acted, beautifully photographed and deals with an aspect of Israeli life rarely seen by tourists, but it has attracted little attention from critics.

The Palestinian entry, “The Wanted 18,” a collaboration with Canadian producers, innovates by combining animation with political protest. Based loosely on actual events during the 1980s, the movie focuses on a group of Palestinian farmers who decide to stop buying milk from an Israeli company and form their own dairy collective.

They buy 18 cows from a sympathetic kibbutznik, send one of their group to the United States to learn the trade and start producing “intifada milk.”

However, Israeli authorities declare the new collective a security threat, and so the Palestinians set about hiding the cows from the government in what has been described as an “absurd and whimsical” film, which is also entered in the separate category of documentary features.

Although not bearing on contemporary history or Jewish concerns, three other films deserve some attention.

Romania’s entry, titled “Aferim!,” is set in the country’s Wallachian province in the early 19th century, when Gypsies were addressed as “black crows” and treated like slaves in the antebellum American South.

Two bounty hunters ride through the beautiful countryside in search of a runaway Gypsy who was seduced by the wife of a local boyar, or aristocratic ruler.

On their long ride, the boyar’s retainers encounter a country priest, who, in a lengthy rant, informs them that Jews are not human but descended from a race of ugly giants, created by God before Adam, who eventually shriveled to their present proportions.

“We never heard of that,” his two listeners respond.

Director Radu Jude (not Jewish) observed that Romania’s notorious anti-Semitism before World War II had its roots in the persecution of Jews in previous centuries.

Jordan’s entry, “Theeb,” goes back to 1916 and the midst of World War I, when a Bedouin boy struggles to survive as Ottoman soldiers fight to preserve their crumbling empire.

As depicted in the Estonian film “1944,” soldiers of the Baltic nation, some in German and others in Soviet uniforms, fought against each other during World War II. Hitler showed his appreciation by officially classifying his Estonians as “Aryans.”

One more note: Gabriel Ripstein, scion of a distinguished clan of Mexican-Jewish filmmakers, is the producer-director-writer of his country’s entry, “600 Miles.” The action revolves around a U.S. government agent (Tim Roth), who is kidnapped by a young Mexican weapons smuggler.

The 2015 foreign-language-film Oscar went to the Polish movie “Ida,” which follows the path of a devout young woman raised in a convent and about to take her vows as a nun. She discovers that her parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust and sets out to rediscover her roots.

The 81 foreign-language entries for 2016 will be winnowed to a short list of nine in late December, and the five finalists will be announced on Jan. 14. The glitzy award ceremony is on Feb. 28 and will be televised to more than 225 countries and territories across the globe.