In prior years, Cinema/Chicago has brought us award-winning films from Israel (including Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, which went on to become one of the year’s five contenders for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and Lemon Tree, the film that lead to a Best Actress award from the Israel Film Academy for Hiam Abbass, the first Palestinian actress ever received this high honor), as well as beloved films from all around the Diaspora (including Daniel Burman’s Argentinian gem Family Law).
This year’s schedule of 146 features and 52 shorts has no films of comparable quality for Jewish audiences. The three Israeli films are all disappointing, especially the highly-buzzed drama The Slut. The catalogue describes lead character “Tamar” (played by the film’s writer/director Hagar Ben-Asher) as a woman with “a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite,” but there’s nothing remotely erotic about commercial transactions in which Tamar trades her physical favors for bicycle repairs and other practical conveniences. When a man finally appears on the scene who promises her more, Ben-Asher fails to give him a coherent backstory, so who cares?
The dramedy Man Without a Cell Phone is better, but not much. Once again, the individual characters lack depth, but when director Sameh Zoabi puts them all together, at least he creates an interesting panorama of Palestinian life. The plot revolves around a man named “Saleh” who worries that a new cell phone tower on the edge of his olive grove is an Israeli plot to give everyone in his village cancer. But despite this pseudo-political overlay, most of Man Without a Cell Phone is a benignly universal spin on father/son dynamics.
Rabies, the most interesting of the three Israeli films, is described in the catalogue as Israel’s “first foray into the slasher genre,” so it’s playing in the CIFF’s late night “After Dark” series. When I asked for the screener, I did so with some reluctance since I’m not typically a fan of this genre, but the names on the DVD case commanded my attention: Lior Ashkenazi? Ania Bukstein? Henry David? Lovers of Israeli cinema know these names belong to very talented actors, and sure enough, if you watch from start to finish, I do believe there is some genuinely thought-provoking social commentary beneath the tongue-in-cheek mayhem. But be warned: you will wade through a whole lot of fake blood and guts before the final credits rolls.
By the way, the title Rabies is a literal translation of the Hebrew word “kalevet” (from kelev = dog), but in current Israeli slang, “kalevet” is used more generally to signify “bad news.” One online dictionary gives this example: “How was your test? Kalevet; I knew nothing!”
For Diaspora films with Jewish content, my favorite this year is the German-language “Holocaust comedy” My Best Enemy. Moritz Bleibtreu (so chilling as infamous terrorist “Andreas Baader” in The Baader Meinhoff Complex back in 2008) stars here as “Victor Kaufmann,” the pampered son of a prestigious art dealer. Victor’s playboy days end abruptly in 1938 when the Nazis annex Austria, but with a little good luck and some help from family friends, Victor learns how to live by his wits. Although midway through I wondered where the “comedy” was, I was able to relax into the genuinely happy ending thanks to a luminous performance by Marthe Keller as Victor’s mother “Hannah.” Together, Victor and Hannah prove yet again that “he who laughs last, laughs best!”
Opening Night festivities this year will be at the Harris Theatre on Randolph, but after that all screenings will at the AMC River East 21 (322 East Illinois).
To order tickets online, visit: www.ChicagoFilmFestival.org. Cinema/Chicago also has a special ticket table in the AMC lobby for onsite purchases.