PROMISE AT DAWN – movie review

PROMISE AT DAWN (La promesse de l’aube)
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenwriters: Eric Barbier, Romain Gary, Marie Eynard
Cast: Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/19
Opens: September 6, 2019 at New York’s Quad Cinema

La promesse de l'aube (2017)

In an internet article by Adina Kay Gross et al “My Jewish Learning: What it means to be a Jewish mother today,” the columnists note that people think of Jewish mothers as mddle-aged women with a nasal New York accent who sweat over a steaming pot of matzo balls while screaming at their kids; or she could be the one who sits poolside in Florida jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her children into calling her more often. “She is sacrificing, yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”

The surprising thing as that the bloggers wrote this years before the release of “Promise at Dawn,” but then again, maybe Eric Barbier, who directed by picture using a script he wrote with Marie Eynard (with a posthumous credit to Romain Gary), copied the theme from that article. Nah, but it sure seems that way. “Promise at Dawn” is not simply a biopic honoring the great writer-adventurer Romain Gary, who, while not fighting the Germans from a base in England penned thirty-four novels and collaborated with Cornelius Ryan on the great war movie “The Longest Day.” It is a quintessential treatment—one of the best in recent memory—of the love-hate feelings that a demanding Jewish mother evokes from her only son—yet we can credit her for pushing her boy to be what he became, oh, just a winner of the Goncourt Prize for French literature twice. Never mind that French law prohibits the giving of such an award more than once to the same writer.

And yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers such a fierce, over the top performance as Nina Kacew, a Jewish mother that you may want to raise your champagne glass to her and say “mazel tov and Le Haim!” It helps that she’s playing against terrific performances by Pierre Niney as her son Romain Kacew, who later changes his name to Romaine Gary, and by Pawel Puchalski and Némo Schiffman as Romain from ages eight and ten and then as an adolescent respectively. Director Barbier is in his métier having served at the helm for “Le brasier” about, among other things, the relationship of father and son.

You’ll come away comparing Romain Gary to Ernest Hemingway, meaning that he was a writer who did not sit in his room pecking away at the typewriter without living life and without rugged experiences as his guide. Here is a fellow who could help land a plane during World War 2 after his pilot is blinded by an enemy bullet, and who is able even to stand up (a little, at least), to a mother who knows that her brilliant son could write prize-winning literature while serving as a French ambassador. If you’re an only son, as I am, you’ll probably relate all the more to the subject matter, perhaps swinging your view of your own mom from wanting to say “Get the hell out of my room and mind your own business” to “Mom, I love you; why don’t you come over and visit more often?”

The movie, based on Romain Gary’s best-selling autobiography of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, is framed in Mexico, opening on a celebration of Día de los muertos (you’ve seen that event in a most stunning form in the 007 movie “Spectre”). He has become exhausted while writing “Promise at Dawn,” his wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) looking on. Changing quickly to Romain’s childhood in Vilnius in the Russian Empire where Romain’s mother Nina made a living selling hats to women (including at least one anti-Semite), the Francophone Nina moves to Nice, France, to give her son a better environment to pursue a career in literature. She opening a hotel there, taking a little time to advise her son to get a pistol, go to Berlin and kill Hitler.

During one of his early trysts with women, Romain is caught by his mother in bed with the maid leading her to fire the servant—too much competition for Nina, presumably. Romain tries to write, is rejected four times, and appears to get his mojo in the military despite being the only recruit out of 300 who does not receive stripes as a officer. “Dreyfus had it worse,” his commanding officer consoles, selecting Romain to go with him to England to continue the war. We can imagine that the officer does not relish Romain’s remaining in France after that country’s defeat as his fate as a Jewish prisoner of war would not be enviable.

I would have liked to know more about Gary’s suicide, since he does not appear a victim of serious depression, but then, as with Anthony Bourdain’s similar taking of life we may never really know. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Romain Gary, you may find that the director honors the man by following his actual life story, giving the French hero all the accolades and avoiding fictional embellishment. Gary’s mother really was like that helicopter parent, and Romain really performed heroic service in the military despite the humiliation of earning no stripes in his graduating class. Romain Gary: novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. It’s all in the movie and well-serviced especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg under the director’s period look at the twenties through the end of the war and beyond.

In French, English subtitles, filmed in Hungary, Belgium, Morocco, and Italy.

131 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-

THE GOLEM – movie review

THE GOLEM
Epic Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Doran Paz, Yoav Paz
Screenwriter: Ariel Cohen
Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golen, Brynie Furstenbwerg, Daniel Cohen, Adi Kvetner, Lenny Ravich, Alex Tritenko, Olga Safronova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/8/19
Opens: February 1, 2019

“The Golem” is a folklore story that over the years, at least since 1915, has been reinterpreted to bring the action up to what modern audiences crave. For example, the original, the 1915 version “Der Golem” shown in the U.S. as “The Monster of Fate,” was the opener of a trilogy that continued with versions in 1917 and 1920. (The 1920 version was shown years ago at Lincoln Center with a live organist to replicate the way that folks saw silent movies a century ago.)

Generally, the entire series of Golem films revolve around the way Jews discover a chance to defend themselves against the anti-Semitic Christians (so-called Christians would be more accurate for the haters). There is also the element that recalls the proverb, “Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.” This would apply as well to the Frankenstein episodes wherein Dr. Frankenstein creates what was looked upon as a monster though he was in truth a gentle person, persecuted by the population until the monster turned killer.

In the current version scheduled to open in New York’s Jewish Community Center or JCC February 1, the Israeli Paz brothers utilize the tropes of modern horror. But there’s a difference. Here lies notable element that would resonate with any persecuted people, in this case Jews who because they form only a minority wherever they live are picked on, oppressed, persecuted, and condemned, usually by anti-Semites who need scapegoats for their own problems. That’s where “The Golem” resonates with real life. In 1948, after centuries of being a minority in every country, Jews took Israel as their homeland and acted quite differently from the way they lived their lives in the diaspora—meaning outside of the homeland. Realizing the absurdity of trying to reason with the enemy, Israelis were forced to fight five wars, when losing a single one would mean the end of the Jewish State. Without a golem to protect them in 17th century Lithuania, village Jews would have been destroyed.

Doran and Yoav Paz are known primarily for their 2015 film “Jeruzalem”—scheduled for a sequel shortly—and which deals with a flight of young adults to Jerusalem where they encounter a Biblical nightmare. Similarly, in 17th century Lithuania, a woman becomes a hero by conjuring a powerful figure, a golem, to save her village from anti-Semites who blame them for a plague. Specifically, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg), unable to provide her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) with a son after the loss of their child, violates the standards of the Jewish community by seeking solutions to two problems. One is that she wants to create a figure out of mud to replace the boy she lost. Second is the need for protection against hostile men on horseback. A plague makes Vladimir (Alex Tritenko) suspect that the Jews are at fault, as his young daughter has become frightfully ill. He gathers his landsmen with the aim of wiping out all the Jews and burning down their entire village. When Hanna sculpts the figure of a boy in the mud, she has someone who can save the Jews, but at the same time, like the Frankenstein monster, he will turn on the community, which makes for a rousing, violent, bloody conflict. See it on the big screen.

In this community in 1673, women did not have nearly as great a role in Jewish prayers as men. Under Judaic law, ten men would form a minyan. Without the minyan, prayer would not be effective. Women were not allowed to join any minyan, which makes this “Golem” a horror tale that shows how Hanna has been seriously underrated by the men—though she got substantial help from a male, the title golem (Daniel Cohen), able to wave his arms and decapitate the enemy one by one. If he turns on his own people, it’s the fault of the folks he saved. The town healer Perla (Brynie Furstenberg) wants to destroy the boy as a freak of nature who could, and does, turn violent even against the Jews.

Some might argue that the dialogue is not on a Shakespearean level, but the picture’s simplicity will draw young audiences, including young women who would not usually be caught dead in a horror show. Fine performances abound by Ishai Golan, and especially Furstenberg. The orthodox Jews serve as a splendid Greek chorus.

Filmed in Ukraine and Israel, “The Golem” is in English with no subtitles.

95 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B
Overall – B