Short 'The Tribe' stands out among festival offerings
Share with others:
The 14th annual Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival opens today. Here are capsule reviews of some of the first week's offerings:
Click photo for larger image.
In occupied Paris of 1942, butcher Batignole just wants to make ends meet -- with a little help from black-market catering to the Germans -- and stay out of political trouble. He's got an overbearing wife and a daughter, whose live-in boyfriend is a virulently anti-Semitic informer who zealously collaborates with the Nazis by turning in the Jewish neighbors upstairs.
"Monsieur Batignole," which opens the Jewish-Israeli Film Festival tonight, is disturbed but convinces himself it's none of his business, especially since he and his family are given the Jews' superior apartment to live in. What disturbs him more, and his conscience can't so easily ignore, is the sudden appearance on his doorstep of Simon, the Jewish family's youngest child, who has somehow escaped deportation and is in desperate need of sanctuary.
Director Gerard Jugnot's compelling story and evocative direction chronicle the tense and intensifying relationship between the butcher and the boy, who is soon joined in hiding by two young girl cousins. Should Batignole risk his family's carefully cultivated prosperity -- not to mention his life -- by helping smuggle three "worthless" Jewish children out of France to safety in Switzerland?
"Monsieur Batignole" () is a kind of romanticized "Diary of Anne Frank" -- "Anne Frank Lite" -- whose melodramatic, lightly humorous plot points increasingly challenge credulity, the closer our fugitives get to freedom. It is redeemed, in the end, not so much by the heroics of Batignole (played by director Jugnot ) as by the beautifully noble, soulful characterization of little Simon (Jules Sitruk).
In any case, this butcher and his heart are in the right time and place.
-- Barry Paris,
Post-Gazette film critic
At an unabridged running time of 18 minutes, "The Tribe" () may not be the weightiest entry in the 2007 Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival -- or is it? You could make a case for it. A picture encapsulating all of Jewish history, religion and culture in a quarter of an hour is at least as ambitious as that landmark books-on-tape condensation a few years ago ("Tolstoy's `War and Peace' in a Minute").
"The Tribe" is funnier -- and, simultaneously, more serious -- than Tolstoy-in-a-Minute, thanks to the celebrity focus at its center: Barbie. It is she, in all her anatomical incorrectness, who serves as our unorthodox tour guide through Judaism.
Funny, she doesn't look Jewish. Who knew that the ultimate blond, blue-eyed shiksa was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler, a sweet Jewish grandmother, and named for Ruth's daughter Barbara?
Director Tiffany Shlain posits Barbie as a (not so natural) outgrowth from the long tradition of Judeo-Christian idol-worship -- "a bad habit to break," we are told, from the Golden Calf to the present.
Schlain's fanciful technique employs animation, still photos, archival footage, nifty pie charts and narrator Peter Coyote to impart significant as well as whimsical information, from the etymological roots of the word Israel ("to wrestle or struggle") to the size and shape of pitiless persecutions that produced the diaspora. In montage form, she gives us a fond, full anthropological inventory of Jewish types -- not just the orthodox, reformed and conservative Jew but the agnostic Jew, the feminist few, the cultural Jew -- not forgetting the culinary Jew.
Her gentle, thought-provoking question for all of them: What does it mean to be a member of this "Tribe" in the 21st century? At the core of all tribes is the instinct to survive. But for this one, my favorite line in the film: "It takes a shtetl."
Turns out that later, after suffering with cancer, the incredibly creative Ruth also developed a successful line of prosthetic breast devices, "thus making not one but two fortunes from plastic boobs," Coyote intones.
You should know that no Barbies were harmed in the making of this film. Also, that two Barbie dolls are sold every second.
And would it surprise you to learn that Ruth also had a son named Ken?
-- Barry Paris
The combination of a 1,000 calorie-a-day diet and being lost in the woods nearly proves fatal to the friendship of three women in this hourlong entry (). Although the language is Hebrew, the calorie-counting, female bonding and occasional sniping born of hunger, hurt and anger need little translation.
Three friends -- an overweight, chatty mother in the throes of bar mitzvah prep, a tightly wound lawyer on the verge of being named a judge, and a childless, secretive woman who lives in Japan with her husband -- end up at a resort for a couple of days. Friends for years, they begin to annoy each other before being confronted with decisions about their lives ... and diets.
At just 52 minutes, this drama from Israel's "Reflections of Women" TV series may leave you hungry for more; it seems like a substantial snack rather than a movie meal. It is being paired, appropriately, with "The Tribe," an 18-minute short examining the link between the Barbie doll and Jewish culture.
-- Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette movie editor
'KING OF BEGGARS'
There is nothing very gentle about "King of Beggars" () except for Fishke, the title character, during the first half. A devout, lame, orphaned water boy in a 16th-century Russian bathhouse, Fishke is tricked into marriage and drafted into a predatory band of Jewish outlaws, who "avenge" their own persecution by preying upon other Jews. Escaping them as well as the Russian pogroms turns peaceful Fishke into the reluctant warrior-king of a fierce Jewish fighting brigade.
The film's violent second half features a compelling series of bloody, semi-slow-motion battle sequences as well as tastefully erotic love scenes -- Fishke's falling in love as well as falling in line. Not least of his and his people's problems is the disastrous three-way split in the Jews' own ranks among freedom fighters, brigands and "Separatist" rabbis who bear books instead of arms.
Writer-director Uri Paster's engrossing period piece is lyrically photographed and powerfully acted, especially by Shahar Sorekobek as Fishke, who, in an interesting twist, bears a stunning resemblance to icon images of Jesus (the Russians and Jews alike remark upon it, some even calling him "our savior").
"King of Beggars" is all you could want in an epic David vs. Goliath parable with an inevitably bittersweet ending.
-- Barry Paris
First Published March 8, 2007 12:00 am