Wrap-up: Portland Jewish Film Festival finishes strong

The Holocaust echoes through films about looted art, lost love letters, and literally haunted ground.

The 24th Portland Jewish Film Festival wraps up this week, but even if you missed out on its initial offerings, there are still some worthy discoveries to be made. Here’s a primer on the event’s final few days:

“Fever at Dawn” (Saturday, 8 pm): Hungarian director Péter Gárdos based this drama on a cache of old love letter between his parents. The story also happens to spotlight an interesting slice of post-World War II history: following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, many Jews were taken to camps in Sweden to recuperate. One of them, 25-year-old Miklos, is given six months to live after scans reveal fluid in his lungs. He decides to write romantic letters to dozens of women in nearby camps, with the goal of falling in love once before he dies. Agnes is one of those who replies, and the two embark on an epistolary relationship that leads to…well, this is the story of the filmmaker’s parents, so the outcome is somewhat predictable. Although the black-and-white cinematography used for the historical scenes is too crisp to be convincing, and the occasional present-day snippets of Gárdos’ mother are unnecessary, the film still manages to be an affecting love story set against the bittersweet backdrop of the first months after the end of the Holocaust. GRADE: B-

The happy couple celebrates their wedding in "Demon."

The happy couple celebrates their wedding in “Demon.”

“The Art Dealer” (Sunday, 4:30 pm): The echoes of the Shoah also reverberate in this polemical mystery about the thorny topic of art looted by the Nazis and never properly returned to its Jewish owners. In the present day, an art dealer obtains a 18th century oil painting of two leopards. When his wife’s father sees it, he seems to recognize it, which sends her on a mission to discover the connection between her family and the artwork. Constantly told to leave well enough alone, Esther digs into buried family secrets and collaboration during the German occupation, eventually implicating the French government. Like “Fever at Dawn,” “The Art Dealer” is inspired by a true story, that of the Seligmann family. But writer-director François Margolin’s film is more reliant on facts than emotions to tell its tale, and those facts often feel selectively chosen to make his political point. GRADE: C

“Demon” (Sunday, 7 pm): The biggest change of pace in this year’s Jewish Film Fest is this Polish horror film, based on a stage play, that also screened as part of the PIFF After Dark programming at February’s Portland International Film Festival. At a secluded, dilapidated farmhouse, a young couple hold their wedding. During the preparations, the groom-to-be unearths some mysterious bones. Then, later, during the reception, he starts suffering from seizures, behaving oddly, and having visions of a young dark-haired woman. It turns out the place has history, and the Jewish legend of the dybbuk (a spirit that attaches itself to an unwilling host) becomes an all-too-apt metaphor for the fate of Jews in this part of the world. Even more haunting than the film is the story of its young director, Marcin Wrona, who hung himself in a hotel room last year during a film festival where “Demon” was being shown. GRADE: B+

“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” (Tuesday, 7 pm): This thorough, thoughtful documentary probes the life and work of the German-Jewish philosopher whose career has unfortunately been reduced in the popular imagination to coining the phrase “the banality of evil.” Arendt, who studied with Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, was an original and provocative thinker before she covered the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for “The New Yorker.” Those essays led to accusations that she was blaming the victims of the Holocaust, but seen from today’s perspective, they seem eerily prescient about the ways that fascism can infiltrate supposedly sophisticated societies. GRADE: B+

A 21st century teenager (Ahmed Drame) comes face to face with the Holocaust in "Once in a Lifetime."

A 21st century teenager (Ahmed Drame) comes face to face with the Holocaust in “Once in a Lifetime.”

“Once in a Lifetime” (Wednesday, 6 pm): A dedicated teacher (Ariane Ascaride) enters her class of inner city students in a national essay competition about the Holocaust, only to find that many of them are woefully ignorant of Europe’s greatest historical tragedy. Through the contest, she spurs the students, many of them Muslim and/or immigrant, to confront their own prejudices and the importance of tolerance. Co-star Ahmed Drame, who wrote the screenplay as a teenager, based it on his own experience. The film, which was a surprise hit in France, is emotional and educational. GRADE: B

(Note: The documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which profiles the groundbreaking TV producer who created “All in the Family” and which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was not provided for review. It screens Monday at 7 pm).

All screenings are at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. For more details, visit www.nwfilm.org

 

 

 

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