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Toronto International Film Festival
Once again, veteran Israeli director Amos Gitai has made a subtle yet powerful and moving film on an aspect of Jewish experience. And once again, he has made it in his own quasi-postmodernist style that will alienate some of his potentially most enthusiastic viewers, probably deliberately.
This time, at least, the subject matter is non-political, and it seems clear that the famously leftist Gitai is desirous of taking a break from the usual rabid polemics, in Israel and elsewhere, with which each new addition to his long filmography is greeted.
While an enterprising, small-scale U.S. distributor might see some modest box-office returns on the film theatrically, its more likely venue will be at film festivals–especially Jewish ones–and in ancillary formats like DVD.
Gitai brilliantly uses the aging but still absolutely riveting Jeanne Moreau in a quiet but intense performance as Madame Gornick, a Jewish mother whose parents have died in the Nazi concentration camps, but who has told her children little about her past. The film is set during the Klaus Barbie trial which took place in France in 1987, and the testimony given during the trial is a near-constant and significant background presence on the soundtrack. Yet Madame Gornick seems at peace with herself and the world.
Her son Victor (Girardot), however, who knows only about his Catholic father’s side of the family, is obsessed with tracking down as much information about his Jewish heritage as he can. As he becomes increasingly unhinged, his wife (Devos), clearly speaking for Gitai, utters the central truth of the film: “You can’t change history, and that’s why your mother is silent. She wants to protect you so that you can go on living.”
The beauty of the film is that this sentiment–which on the surface is, after all, rather banal–is realized indirectly, yet in a manner that remains profound and deeply affecting.
Gitai’s narrative, as usual, is a far cry from Hollywood’s beloved plot points and character arcs, and the film is more a series of powerful vignettes than a sustained story. Traditional-minded viewers may become frustrated trying to put the pieces together.
The best thing about it, though, is its probing of seldom seen aspects of the Holocaust, as for example, when Victor, after his mother’s death, visits the official French office devoted to compensating Jewish victims of the Vichy government, and seems dumbfounded by their method of toting up the final tab.
The flashbacks to the night his grandparents were rounded up also seem fresh because Gitai shoots them in very tight closeup, thus managing to avoid standard-issue Holocaust iconography. Gitai even treats us to a small dose of understated humor as we see these secular Jews trying to cope with unfamiliar concepts like saying Kaddish and sitting shiva.
At other times, though, obviously intentional techniques like the one in which Victor walks back and forth between two rooms while talking to his sister–each time causing the screen to go blank between rooms–are more annoying than aesthetically revealing. And ending with a shot of the Eiffel Tower might be just one clever idea too many.
Production Companies: Agav Films, Norddeutscher Rundfunk
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Dominique Blanc
Director: Amos Gitai
Screenwriter: Dan Franck and Jerome Clements, based on the autobiography of Jerome Clements
Producers: Amos Gitai
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Editor: Isabelle Ingold
Sales: Roissy Films
No rating, 89 minutes
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