A sampling of reviews of movies playing the first week of the JFilm Festival, formerly the Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival. As usual, they highlight Jewish themes, characters or experiences.
"The German Doctor"
Fact and fiction mingle and spin into a tornado of tension in "The German Doctor" from writer-director Lucia Puenzo. It's based on her novel, "Wakolda," about Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," and how he wins the trust of an Argentinean family while hiding out with other Nazi war criminals in 1960 near Bariloche.
A doctor (Alex Brendemuhl) meets a married couple and their three offspring as they are traveling to Patagonia to reopen a once-grand family hotel and enroll their older two children at a nearby German-language school. He later turns up at the resort with a roll of cash and story that his wife will join him once he's settled.
The sinister, manipulative stranger claims he's working on cattle and improving the breed with growth hormones. He offers treatment to the family's daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado), age 12 but only as tall as an 8-year-old, and reverts to frightening form by also advising the mother (Natalia Oreiro) on her pregnancy.
The family in the drama is fictional, the character of Nora Eldoc inspired by an actual woman and the disappearance of Mengele around this time real, as are the sorts of obsessive drawings and notebooks the SS physician kept. People were mere specimens for his evil experiments.
"The German Doctor" is salted with symbols or signs about the enemy in the midst of the beauty of the Patagonian landscape: Visitors who arrive by hydroplane and end up with heavily bandaged faces, the attempt to engineer a line of identical Aryan-looking dolls, and a horror movie producing screams from its young audience while the real monster sadly roams free.
In Spanish, German and Hebrew with English subtitles.
"The Jewish Cardinal"
The movie about Jean-Marie Lustiger, the son of Polish Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism at 14 and rose through the church ranks, ends with a note: "This fiction is freely based on Cardinal Lustiger's life."
Just how freely isn't detailed, but perhaps that explains the scene where the cardinal, uncharacteristically clad in all-scarlet vestments, explodes at the pope: "I'll no longer be the Vatican's court Jew" and "You're robbing us of our dead, Karol Wojtyla!"
Even if he had once been a close, candid adviser to John Paul II and now was apoplectic over the fate of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, it seems unlikely he would have addressed the pontiff in such a way. But the pope died in 2005 and Lustiger two years later, so who knows how much was invented in text or tone?
Nevertheless, Lustiger -- whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz in 1943 -- is a fascinating figure, a man who said he remained Jewish, even as he led France's 45 million Catholics. The movie spends too much of its 90 minutes on some events and too little on others, but actor Laurent Lucas plays Lustiger with remarkable vigor, intensity, deep emotion and convincing faith, giving the movie catholic appeal.
In French with English subtitles.
It's no wonder that filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski's method of telling this story has deeply divided and, in some cases, incensed audiences. He chooses to dramatize the aftermath of the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland, in the style of a horror movie or thriller.
A man (Ireneusz Czop) returns to his native Poland from America after 20 years and finds strange, increasingly violent goings-on: The disappearance of his bag when he investigates noises in the nighttime woods on the road to his family's farm; the ostracism of his younger brother (Maciej Stuhr) who refuses to say why his wife and children fled; and escalating physical attacks on both men as they get closer to sickening secrets about their village.
"Aftermath" is eerie, effective and visually striking but drives its messages home with the force of a sledgehammer. In addition to being heavy handed, it's too much, as with a scene where brothers dig for some evidence and not only do it in the dark but in the driving rain.
It's all cranked up for maximum effect and drama when the real horror is in the subject matter (detailed in the 2001 book "Neighbors" by Jan T. Gross). In the end, "Aftermath" reveals what happened and how it happened without enough about the why.
In Polish with English subtitles.
"The Zigzag Kid"
Nono (Thomas Simon) is what you would call a spirited boy. Days from turning 13, he looks before he leaps, but he doesn't think about all of the possibilities when he grabs an oversize umbrella, jumps off a roof during a cousin's bar mitzvah and lands on the cake, triggers a fire and ruins the party.
As an aspiring police inspector, like his father in Holland, Nono willingly embarks on a mission that takes him off a train heading to his disciplinarian uncle and into an adventure with an apparent stranger. It leads him to the French Riviera, a chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini), and some long-sought answers about the mother who died when he was a year old.
"The Zigzag Kid" is based on the David Grossman novel and it's a breezy European adventure, but it might be better suited to the page. To see Nono go off with a criminal who allows him to drive or makes him (briefly) disguise himself as a girl is alarming, and the ultimate fate of the boy's mother is tragic -- no matter how many lighthearted, chocolate-dipped or picturesque moments come before.
In English, Dutch and French with subtitles.