JFilm opens its 26th annual festival on March 7 at the SouthSide Works Cinema with the Pittsburgh premiere of “The Unorthodox,” a humorous romp through the formation of an Israeli political party. The opening will be followed by an after-party.
The festival will continue through March 17, showcasing 21 Pittsburgh premieres ranging from a light-hearted documentary about a culinary journey through Montreal to a drama about a religious Israeli’s existential struggle for redemption while balancing life in a dichotomous world.
The 11-day festival is complemented by a variety of supplemental programming, including visiting filmmakers, guest speakers and collaborative events with other local organizations.
The films come from around the world, including Hungary, Israel, Canada
Reviews of six of the films follow. For a complete schedule and to view trailers, go to filmpittsburgh.org/festivals/jfilm-festival.
March 7, 7 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
Followed by an after-party catered by Tallulah’s. OPENING NIGHT.
This politically charged underdog story, loosely based on the 1980s grassroots founding of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party, kicks off the JFilm Festival with a humorous take on a provocative subject.
“The Unorthodox” is told from the perspective of Yaakov Cohen, a Sephardic father and printer by trade who is moved to action when his daughter is expelled from a prominent Ashkenazi school. Tired of taking a back seat to his Ashkenazi compatriots, Yaakov, his rabbi and a plucky friend form a ragtag team motivated by the pursuit of justice into entering the cutthroat and sometimes shady world of Israeli politics.
Yaakov is played by Israeli actor Shuli Rand with passion and sensitivity as his character is swept up in the quest for power in a realm clearly out of his league. The film transitions effortlessly from light-hearted romp to serious — and even tragic — social commentary.
“The Unorthodox,” by Israeli television writer Eliran Malka, was a crowd-pleaser in Israel. It opened the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2018, marking the first time a film by a debut filmmaker held that distinction.
In addition to delivering a compelling storyline enhanced by the outstanding comedic timing of its actors, “The Unorthodox” is supported by a great musical score that includes Israeli pop songs of the period, as well as the unexpectedly yet appropriately injected “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees.
— Toby Tabachnick
March 9, 3 p.m., and March 17, 1 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
From the outset of this poignant film, we see that its protagonist, Menny, is a conflicted soul. Against a soundscape of mood-setting melancholy rock music, “Redemption” opens with the Orthodox Menny having his photo taken for what we later discover is matchmaking purposes. He forces himself to smile for the photographer, but his timing is off for every shot.
His plight is soon revealed: A widower who works in a supermarket, Menny is a single parent with a 6-year-old daughter who is battling cancer. The last hope for Geula, whose name is Hebrew for “redemption,” is an expensive experimental treatment that Menny cannot afford.
Desperate to get the necessary funds, Menny reaches back into his prior life for help; before he became religious, he was the lead singer in a popular rock band. Figuring there is good money to be made playing Orthodox weddings, Menny gets the four-man band back together. The ensuing wedding gigs not only pay the medical bills, but eventually lead to the promise of new rock shows at a secular club.
The success of the reunited group is accompanied by further challenges for Menny. He finds himself straddling two worlds — music and religion — both of which have or can fill his life with meaning, but which are not necessarily compatible. His struggle is in figuring out which one can save his daughter.
The film won the Audience Award and the prize for Best Music at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, and for good reason. The music is excellent, as are the performances of the entire cast. Of particular note is Emily Granin, who plays Geula with remarkable grace and insight. Moshe Folkenflik, as Menny, conveys his character’s conflicted emotions with subtle and nuanced expression.
Joy and responsibility, practicality and spirituality — the film may not definitively answer wherein redemption lies, but that may be the point.
— Toby Tabachnick
‘Back To Maracanã’
March 9, 5:15 p.m., and March 12, 5:30 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
The March 9 screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Jorge Gurvich.
Running throughout “Back to Maracanã” is the protagonist’s passion for soccer, but the film’s action occurs far from the pitch. Director Jorge Gurvich’s 2018 movie introduces viewers to Robert, a divorced 40-year-old who in 2014 finds his way to Brazil with his father and son. The trio travels throughout the country in “a hotel on wheels,” seeking to follow team Brazil’s quest for World Cup glory. While Robert and his father (Samuel) are soccer enthusiasts, the youngest member of the clan (Itay) is uninterested in the beautiful game. Amplifying Itay’s preteen angst is knowing his mother is also in Brazil with her German boss and boyfriend.
Gurvich uses health and fiscal complications to push the plot. Accordingly, when past dealings and future plans become apparent, the characters are quickly forced to realize time is running out. Robert and the others recognize achieving civility and respect while navigating intergenerational relationships is akin to putting a ball in the net — a simple task complicated by surrounding realities.
Such awareness is at the heart of “Back to Maracanã,” a film which makes its world premiere in Pittsburgh. Those interested in Gurvich’s narrative goals, or where he found the movie’s vintage motorhome, can score a chance to speak with the director during a question and answer session following the March 9 screening.
Sports enthusiasts know who won the 2014 World Cup, but as “Back to Maracanã” demonstrates, life’s lessons are less familiar. Gurvich’s gift is reminding viewers that surprises abound even in expected outcomes, and we often learn more from losing than we ever do from winning.
— Adam Reinherz
‘Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal’
March 10, 11 a.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
Followed by bagel brunch catered by Smallman Street Deli.
Comedy duo Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, creators of the web series “YidLife Crisis,” are eaters. Such is evidenced by “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” an hour-long documentary capturing two comedians devouring their way through six Montreal settings. Among Batalion and Elman’s single-day ingestions are bagels with cream cheese and lox, all-beef salami and all-beef bologna sandwiches with mustard served on pressed flat rolls, smoked meat sandwiches, pickles and coleslaw, gooey chocolate babka, a spread of Sephardic salads and Moroccan fish with peppers and coriander, mint tea and chebakia (a pastry of Moroccan origin), massafan (Iraqi flourless cookies), pitas, hummus, potato knishes and couscous.
Purposefully, the calorie-laden trek takes Batalion and Elman on a pursuit of food and history in humorous style. Through engagements with quirky natives and food connoisseurs, the entertainers hear stories of generational struggles, observe neighborhood shifts and discover innovations in Montreal’s Jewish life.
Aiding the cultural narrative is Zev Moses, executive director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, who accompanies Batalion and Elman through much of the film dishing historical insights as the comedians deliver punchlines and fodder.
With food as their prop, Batalion and Elman provide a satisfying perspective on “The City of a Hundred Steeples.” Montreal’s Jewish history reflects a familiar migratory account of initial Ashkenazi arrivers, later Sephardic comers, urban exodus and return. Sandwiched between meeting the Montrealers who shape that tale and watching two Jews chew are delightful nuggets of dialogue both deadpanned and earnest.
In one scene, as a babka oozing with chocolate is unfolded, someone says, “That’s the soul of the Jewish people.”
Later on, a restaurateur remarks, “For the life of me, you cannot have a good meal without having a couscous.”
Unlike a smorgasbord of Jewish cuisine glutinously consumed, “Chewdaism” is an easy and enjoyable film to digest. Although there is much stacked on the documentary’s cinematic plate, in only the best way are viewers left hungry.
— Adam Reinherz
‘Why the Jews?’
March 10, 1 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
This film will be preceded by “Footsteps of My Father.”
This captivating documentary by Catholic filmmaker John Curtain takes a look at the vast accomplishments of the Jewish people throughout history, and in interviews with notable figures asks: “Why the Jews?”
Prominent voices such as Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and the late Shimon Peres weigh in on how a people that make up just 0.2 percent of the world’s population could comprise 22 percent of Nobel Prize winners, 33 percent of Academy Award-winning directors, and 40 percent of world chess champions.
Curtain, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, underscores the Jews’ contributions to science, medicine, social justice and the arts by flashing scores of names and photos that, when viewed in rapid sequence, are striking: Mahler, Einstein, Kafka, Proust, Dylan, Streisand, Chagall, Roth, Sontag and Steinem, for starters.
Theories examined in the film as to why the Jews have positively impacted society in such disproportion to their numbers vary. Sacks postulates that it is the Jews’ emphasis on education, while the non-Jewish political scientist Charles Murray theorizes that it is an innate advanced intelligence. The story of the Jewish people, Murray submits, is the “story of a persecuted people who finally got a chance, and wow, look what they did.”
Others argue that history has necessitated that Jews, to ensure their survival, become risk-takers, leading to their proclivity to creativity and innovation. Westheimer, whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust, notes that after her life was saved by the Kindertransport, she felt an “obligation to make something of myself.”
Sacks points out that “Jewish accomplishment is the other side of the coin as why people hate Jews.” Others in the film examine the age-old anti-Semitism that has followed the Jewish people from century to century, some theorizing that Jewish accomplishments are a constant reminder to other people of their own lack of accomplishments.
“The constant mistake Jews make is they think that other people will always celebrate success,” Sacks says.
While the film never fully answers its titular question, it nonetheless provides a thoughtful exploration of the immeasurable and persistent contributions of the Jews to the world at large.
— Toby Tabachnick
March 16, 8:30 p.m. at SouthSide Works Cinema
This screening will be followed by a Film Schmooze led by Jedd Hakimi, University of Pittsburgh.
“To Dust” may not be for everyone. Dark humor, a heavy dose of the macabre, and, OK, outright sacrilege imbue this otherwise tender tale of grief, devotion and friendship.
Let’s put it this way: If you appreciated the sensibilities of the 1971 film “Harold and Maude,” make it a point to see “To Dust,” a winner of the Audience Award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
At its core, “To Dust” is a buddy film, and true to that genre, it pairs an unlikely duo on a quest filled with madcap yet ultimately meaningful adventure. Here, the odd couple is comprised of Shmuel, a haredi cantor from upstate New York, and Albert, a bungling science teacher at a community college.
Shmuel, played with soulful conviction by the Budapest-born Géza Röhrig, has just buried his young wife who died of cancer, and is left to raise two young sons. He is tortured with vivid imaginings of his wife’s corpse decomposing, convinced that her soul is suffering in the process, and becomes obsessed with finding out exactly how long it will take for her body to return to dust. He seeks out answers in the secular world, eventually eliciting help from the unassuming and often-stoned Albert, played by a hysterical Matthew Broderick.
Much of the film is laugh-out-loud funny, such as the scene where Albert finds himself suffocating a large stolen pig with a plastic bag so that Shmuel can use the animal to replicate the burial of his wife and monitor its decomposition, or when Shmuel’s sons, convinced their father’s increasingly strange behavior is caused by a dybbuk, perform an exorcism through their father’s big toe while he is asleep.
At times, “To Dust” teeters on the verge of folklore or fable, yet never loses touch with the relatable, real-life emotions of its protagonist. While we probably can’t identify with Shmuel’s commitment to this particular quest, most of us can relate to the feelings driving it.
Parts of the film are gruesome, yet it manages to be simultaneously beautiful. Its unflinching look at physical death complements its bold confrontation of the deep pain, sadness, and hopefully, the ultimate healing following the loss of a loved one. PJC
— Toby Tabachnick