SEFARAD – movie review

SEFARAD
Veranda Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luís Ismael
Script History: Research Center of the Jewish Community of Oporto, Portugal
Cast: Rodrigo Santos, Pedro Galiza, Ana Vargas, Gabriela Relvas, Jorge Fernandes, Rui Spranger, Pedro Frias, José Neto
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, November 1, 2019
Opens: December 15, 2019

Sefarad (2019)

In my neighborhood, young Hasidic men and women spend much of each Friday walking around, judging whether the people they see on the street are Jewish. It’s quite common for a fourteen-year-old pair of girls to approach a woman, and for a fifteen-year-old man to close in on a man, asking “Are you Jewish?” Anyone who replies “yes” might be taken inside a “mitvah tank” to get a tefillen wrapped around his arm, get a blessing, and be sent away with the hope that yet another secular Jewish person will come back to the fold. This is a half-hour procedure the closest thing to what Christian missionaries do around the world, but there’s a difference. Judaism is not looking to convert people of other religions, only to awaken the latent Judaism in those who are members of the tribe. This is not unlike situation taking place on a grander scale in Oporto, Portugal, a city to which Jews returned in the Nineteenth Century to form a small community, the leaders of which are determined to bring the “real” Judaism to a group of so-called Marranos, or Crypto Jews, living in semi-isolated mountainous villages.

These Marranos (an offensive term that should give way to the more neutral “Crypto Jews”) were Jews who during and after the Inquisition in Spain converted to Catholicism to avoid the fate of these landsmen who were massacred in 1391. Hundreds of thousands of Jews became outwardly Christians, but the Crypto-Jews are those who practiced Judaism in secret. When beginning in 1923 Portuguese army captain Artur Barros Basto became involved in reclaiming these mountain people who did not pray in the same way as do the Jews who never had to convert. Moreover they were not even considered Jews by some, especially by one London-based financier. Barros Basto recruits a segment of these people and brings them into a classroom where he teaches them the “real” literature, culture and rituals of Judaism. He insists that they be circumcised because, he notes, nobody can be accepted into the embrace of Israel without a small, symbolic penile cut. For this latter act Barros Basto, a hero of World War I, is tossed out of the army and becomes the Portuguese Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Luís Ismael, who directs this look at specific periods in Jewish history, is known for “Balas and Bolinos” about a gang that robs a gas station, following up with additional dramas about the leader of the gang. Not quite what we would expect from this director. Now he manages an epic story that covers five centuries in ninety minutes in a movie named Sefarad for an Iberian region where Sephardic Jews originated. Inspired by a true story of Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961) who is portrayed here by Rodrigo Santos, this idealistic leader determines to establish a strong Jewish community in Oporto including the construction of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in 1938, the largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

This is a story without humor, a serious drama whose director is obviously inspired by one man who performs a minor revolution by getting a synagogue financed and built and means for all Jews in Oporto, but who admits ultimately that he failed. He faces resistance from the Marranos, many of whom had no intention or desire to change their ways, leaving behind a large synagogue with too small a congregation. As a former high school teacher I found the liveliest scene to take place in a modest classroom where the teens look at each other with shock and disbelief when told that they would have to undergo the placement of a knife to the penis. Inspiring is the scene of the captain as the stereotypical man on horseback, trudging through the tiny, mountainous villages and addressing the residents as if to say “Are you Jewish?” Rodrigo Santos anchors the film, speaking in fluent Portugese and English, relying on the help of his right-hand man Menasseh Ben Dov (Pedro Galiza) who will ultimately leave Portugal for what was then called Palestine.

The actors can sometimes deliver their lines too stiffly, particularly those playing British financiers with disagreements about recognizing Crypto-Jews as Jews (with good reason as many continue to attend Catholic church services), and much of the dialogue is didactic as though it were being presented to a middle school classroom. Despite these reservations, we should welcome “Sefarad” as a look at clash between Marranos culture, as these converted Jews over the centuries may have forgotten everything about the religion or, if they retained it would practice in a different way from those who never had to convert. Interestingly Barros Basto had thought of himself as a Catholic until his dying grandfather confessed to Jewish family origins. He converted to Judaism, was circumcised in Tangier, and changed his name to Abraham Israel Ben Rosh. His own converso story was passed over too lightly in the film.

In Portuguese, English and Hebrew.

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

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

NEVER AGAIN IS NOW – movie review

NEVER AGAIN IS NOW
Ph.D. Productions/Blaze Documentary
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Evelyn Markus
Screenwriter: Evelyn Markus
Cast: Evelyn Markus, Rosa Zeegers, Ben Shapiro, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Qanta Ahmed, Jozias van Aartsen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/26/19
Opens: October 23, 2019

Never Again Is Now Button

This marvelous film has been released under the radar

“Never Again is Now” is expertly edited to combine archival films of Hitler and the war with life in Europe today. After the racist attacks and ultimately the deaths of six millions Jews 1941-45, the slogan “Never Again” was heard throughout the world. Those of us who are Jews and people who have moral firmness in their spines thought that we had heard the last of atrocities like those culminating seven decades ago.

Looking now at Europe, we may find it difficult to imagine that France has been the locale of terrible beatings and bombings against Jewish sites, but it’s even more surprising that anti-Semitic attacks are taking place in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam and the Hague. Most of the violence comes from the growing Muslim populations in Europe, but the traditional citizens of sites like Amsterdam and Paris have sometimes caught the disease. We Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, raining criticism of his country’s Muslims. We generally believe that far right politicians in Europe are themselves anti-Semitic, but in this case he receives a filmed audience from the Jewish director.

The most important concept emerging from the film is from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim born in Somalia who had left for Europe and ultimately the United States. When interviewed by Evelyn Markus, the director, who asked whether anti-Semitic incidents would have occurred if there were no Israel, Hirsi Ali delivered a nuanced reply that anti-Semitic sentiment lies buried in some people, with Israel serving merely as an excuse to demonstrate. Hey, it’s not as though everything was peachy for the Jews before the creation of Israel. People have had a need for scapegoats long before the last two centuries and have found victims among minority groups like the Armenians in Turkey, the Rohinga in Myanmar, the Romani in Europe, the Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda—among so many others.

Personalizing the film, Evelyn Markus spoke of her parents’ surviving the Holocaust, her mother liberated while on a cattle car heading to a death camp in Eastern Germany. Markus, who notes that she is not only Jewish but gay (her partner, Rosa Zeegers, enjoys a large role, sharing a home with the director for decades.) The two are dismayed that often violent demonstrations against Jews—not Zionists, necessarily, not Israelis, but diaspora Jews—have made their former country unrecognizable thanks to loud demonstrations by Muslims who shout “Kill the Jews wherever they live.” Even non-Jews are marked for assassination if they are critical of Islam. Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker critical of Islam in a short doc, was assassinated: stabbed by a jihadist with an anti-Semitic note stuck to his chest. Zeegers, who had passed by a pro-Palestinian demonstration, could scarcely believe the calls of “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” a shout which by the way was duplicated even in football stadiums by the visiting teams.

Still it’s refreshing to hear that most Muslims living in Europe and the U.S. go about their business and are not political, and that a few, like the wonderful Ayaan Hirsi Ali, note that violent demonstrators are not in the spirit of Islam, that they are caused by political Islamists. To prove a point—and without extra dialogue—Markus films a sign during a demonstration that calls for Sharia in the Netherlands! So: that’s what you get when you allow too many political Islamists into your country. Instead of gratitude, they would like to overthrow the government, cover women, maybe even ban music, movies, and “Western” culture. It’s almost enough to turn people on the left political spectrum to become conservative.

By quoting the anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil,” Markus appears to want us to speak up against, well, evil. People are speaking up, but that does not seem to cut much ice in Europe. At least here in the U.S. where Jews can still walk with kipot on heads, even tallit on their bodies, we could use an administration in D.C. that does not consider the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville to be “fine people.”

This documentary is vivid, it’s riveting, even mesmerizing. It’s a call to action but it does not really tell us what we can do to end the growing divisions in our society since free speech makes the situation even worse. Can anyone?

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

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

THE UNORTHODOX – movie review

THE UNORTHODOX
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Malka
Screenwriter: Eliran Malka
Cast: Shuli Rand, Yaacov Cohen, Yoav Levi, Golan Azulai, Shifi Aloni, Or Lumbrozo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’

 

The old saying is that you put two Jews in a room discussing anything under the sun and they will not only disagree but will come up with three diverse positions. This is true to some extent among diaspora Jews in the U.S., people of the book who love endless discussions to such an extent that many Gentiles do not understand the verbal mayhem. And it is surely true of Jews living in Israel, who may have seemed unified when the nation was founded in 1948 with its iconic, socialist members of kibbutzim (collective farms), but has since fractured into more political parties than you can count on your fingers, with maybe your toes thrown in. “The Unorthodox” may seem at first look like a deadly serious film about ethnic discrimination but is filled with comic outbursts and undertones and includes many cartoonish figures—not excluding rabbis.

Still, it’s regrettable that Israelis fell into the kind of discrimination that pit those of European background, some of whom migrated to the land while others (Sabras) were born there, against those known as Mizrahis and Sephardim—generally of darker skin including those thrown out of their birth lands including Iran, Dagestan, Syria, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The differences are not only in skin color, though you might scarcely tell by looking who is of European stock and who is Middle Eastern, but in culture, involving music, clothing, food and the like.

Because of this discrimination, one fellow, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand), partly comic and otherwise passionate, becomes radicalized when his daughter is suspended from high school twice within two weeks and then told by the headmistress that she “does not fit in.” Turns out that she is Sephardic attending a school filled with Ashkenazi Jews, and is dropped from the register though she is neither a discipline problem nor a bad student. Forced to accept the decision, Yaakov, heretofore apolitical, realizes that the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Jerusalem can show power only by forming a party, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, or Shas (an actual party of Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern extraction actually founded in 1984). Nobody but he thinks the organization will get anywhere, but in running for the City Council, Yaakov must get the endorsement of at least one rabbi, preferably the head rabbi of the city.

Given the overlong presidential campaigns here in the U.S., each election considered by the media “the most important ever,” you may not be in the mood for another culture’s campaigning, but you will be drawn into writer-director Eliran Malka’s debut feature movie. Eliran Malka presents “The Unorthodox” soon after helming his groundbreaking TV show Shababnikim, an irreverent look at the shenanigans of four ultra-Orthodox fellows studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Malka, intent on showing ultra-Orthodox as people misrepresented by the media as a closed society, highlights each of the major personalities with his or her own quirks, whether they be from the movie’s idealistic anchor played by Shuli Rand, the local rabbi actually named Yaacov Cohen, who was born in Morocco, or the henchmen who try to absorb the Shas founders into their own party thereby hoping to dissolve the divisions. But like political parties everywhere, Shas began with admirable ideals when Shuli Rand’s character ran for the Jerusalem City Council, then rubbed up against the daily corruptions of the game, wherein at least five Shas members of the Knesset were busted for fraud, forgery, and conspiracy to commit crimes.

Notwithstanding the writer-director’s championing of the party through his film, today Shas has moved to the far right, against any cutback in activities settling the West Bank. At least the party as we see its members in action in “The Unorthodox” summons us to cheer their ideals, while knowing that somehow Yaacov, its founding member, will become not only corrupted but thrown under the bus by his fellow party members.

“The Unorthodox” was selected to screen at the Israel Film Festival.

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

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B