Jewish Journal

Short Films, Big Messages

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 26, 2004 | 8:00 pm

In Sidney Lumet's searing short film, "The Rachel Aria," a fanatical Jew tears a Torah scroll while making a horrific vow: He's decided to let himself and his adopted child be boiled alive rather than convert to Christianity; he won't save her by revealing she's actually the daughter of the cardinal, his arch-nemesis.

For the filmmakers, the short -- based on the 1835 opera, "La Juive" -- is as much about terrorism as anti-Semitism.

"We talked a lot about suicide bombers," producer Paula Heil Fisher said. "We talked about how a person can be driven to choose revenge over family."

"Rachel" premieres this week at the 10th annual Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films, the largest event of its kind in North America. It's one of six shorts on a Jewish program that, like some festival fare, exhibits a kind of Sept. 11 hangover.

"Strangers," by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, revolves around a Jew and an Arab who band together to escape skinheads on the subway. "Old Country," by Mark Adam and Allen Kaeja, explores a community traumatized by the brutality of war.

Like all successful shorts, the Jewish films are concise but powerful; Lumet, for one, "gives just the necessary information while delivering emotional depth," the festival's Helen du Toit said.

In a spare 10 minutes, the protagonist, Eleazar, displays the level of angst one sees in Lumet's Oscar-winning feature, "The Pawnbroker," about a Holocaust survivor also embittered by loss.

"It's intensely psychological storytelling," du Toit said.

But the focus is political, too. Eleazar (tenor Neil Shicoff) "speaks of intolerance and prejudice and fanaticism that's so contemporary I can turn the TV on now and see it on CNN," Shicoff told Newsday.

Which is why his character commits such an unspeakable act in the film.

"He tears the Torah, which is an unbelievable sin beyond anything you can imagine -- beyond murder," Lumet said.

The Jewish short film program screens Sept. 1 at the festival, which runs from Aug. 31-Sept. 6. For information, visit www.psfilmfest.org .

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