There are as many different definitions of what it means to be Jewish as there are Jews in the world. Or at least nearly so. It can be a religious identity, a cultural identity, a historical identity, a political identity. And it’s inevitably some combination of those.
That said, most of the films being screened during the Northwest Film Center’s 24th annual Portland Jewish Film Festival, which opened on Wednesday, June 15, with the Moroccan drama “The Midnight Orchestra,” fall into one of three broad categories.
Documentaries in the festival s explore facets of Jewish and/or Israeli life, whether looking back on the Six-Day War or profiling figures such as TV pioneer Norman Lear or philosopher Hannah Arendt. During the first of the fest’s two weeks, the nonfiction highlight is “Censored Voices” (June 20), which brings to light recordings made by Israeli soldiers returning from the 1967 conflict. Those testimonies contradicted the triumphalist rhetoric of the day and were kept from publication at the time.
The fiction features come in two varieties. Some are inherently Jewish stories, involving aspects of history or tradition in integral ways. These include “The Last Mentsch” (June 21), about an elderly Holocaust survivor who returns to his Hungarian hometown in order to obtain the proof he needs to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (The number tattooed on his arm is not, apparently, enough.)
In a more lighthearted, if oddly twisted, vein, “Time to Say Goodbye” (June 19) is a surprisingly raunchy comedy about a 12-year-old German Jewish boy whose newly religious father decides to have him circumcised before his bar mitzvah. This leads to a number of zany complications, including the kid’s crush on his congregation’s attractive new 32-year-old female rabbi. The humor verges on, and sometimes crosses over into, the inappropriate, especially the stalkerish antics of our hero’s pals, which aren’t nearly as charming as the movie thinks they are. (The movie’s original title translates as “Simon Says Goodbye to His Foreskin.”) Still, it ends up an endearing coming-of-age comedy.
Then there are the narrative films that don’t necessarily rely on specifically Jewish plot points, but which gain added complexity or resonance from their geographical or cultural settings. These can include horror films like “Demon” (June 26), a family drama like “The Kind Words” (June 19), or a quasi-thriller like “The Kindergarten Teacher” (June 23), which happens to be the one don’t-miss film of the week. (With a caveat: The most anticipated film of the fest, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (June 18), starring Natalie Portman, who also makes her feature directing debut, was not provided to critics in advance.)
The title character of “The Kindergarten Teacher” is Nira (Sarit Larry), who develops an intense fascination with one the students at her Tel Aviv school. The boy, Yoav, seems to have a poetic gift—he’ll occasionally go into a sort of trance and recite aphoristic verse that Nira, at least, finds intensely moving. (With poetry, of course, it’s hard to tell what gets lost in the translation from Hebrew to English subtitles, but most of his stuff seemed fairly pedestrian to me.) Nira’s obsession with protecting Yoav from the corruption of the world—from, indeed growing up at all, takes her to dangerous places and the film to unsettling ones.
Director Nadav Lapid (“Policeman”) skillfully employs a subjective camera to enhance our identification with Nira, and elicits enigmatic, compelling performances from both Larry and Avi Shnaidman, the young actor who plays Yoav. The film also has a soft, restrained cinematography that helps it conjure a unique, subtle, sense of dread and suspense.
The festival continues through June 29, and ArtsWatch will preview the second batch of programming next week. For a full schedule and details, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/portland-jewish-film-festival/.