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Jewish Journal

Jewish tales vie for foreign film Oscar

by Tom Tugend

December 27, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Scene from The Counterfeiters

Scene from The Counterfeiters

At the indecent hour of 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 22, movie stars, directors and producers will be wide awake and nervously awaiting word whether their names or films have been nominated to vie for Oscar honors at the 80th Annual Academy Awards.

None will be chewing their fingernails more vigorously than filmmakers in 63 countries, from Argentina to Vietnam, who are competing in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

For some obscure but creative Azerbaijanian or Croatian, a nomination means sudden entrée to Hollywood and screening in American theaters.

The competition is invariably accompanied by controversy, as detailed below, but since no Palestinian film has been entered this year, the Academy will not have to deal with the weighty question of recent years as to whether the movie comes from Palestine, the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian territory.

This year, three countries -- Austria, Brazil and Israel -- have submitted entries of particular Jewish interest in the foreign- language competition, and a second Israeli film is entered in other Oscar categories.

All four movies are of unusually high caliber and look at Jewish/Israeli themes from sharply different perspectives.

To avoid favoritism, the entries are listed here by country, in alphabetical order.

Austria's "The Counterfeiters" dramatizes one of the more remarkable episodes of World War II.

In 1943, as the Nazis realize that the war is going against them, they try one more ploy -- to wreck the economies of Britain, and then the United States, with massive amounts of perfectly counterfeited pounds sterling and dollars.

Under the code name "Operation Bernard," the Germans comb concentration camps and put together a team of more than 100 skilled Jewish printers, photographers and engravers.

In Sachsenhausen, the prisoners are placed in two completely isolated barracks, dubbed "The Golden Cage," given soft beds, good food, civilian clothes, first-class equipment and piped-in music.

Heading the team is Salomon Sorowitch, a character based on one Salomon Smolianoff, a Russian-born Jew nicknamed "Sally," who lived high in the Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s as "The King of the Counterfeiters."

Sorowitch/Smolianoff is a natural-born survivor, who passed four previous years at the Mauthausen concentration camp in relative comfort by painting flattering portraits of SS officers.

Faced with the choice of producing pound notes so perfect that even the Bank of England accepts them as real, or instant death, Sorowitch does the Nazis' bidding.

By the end of the war, the Sachsenhausen team had turned out 134 million pounds, three times the amount of British currency reserves, and was getting close to producing equally perfect dollar bills.

Yet, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does not draw Sorowitch, portrayed by Karl Markovics, as just a craven collaborator. Sorowitch protects a fellow prisoner who is trying to sabotage the operation and who uses his skills to get medicine for an ill inmate.

"The Counterfeiters" retains the tension of a top thriller, but it goes deeper than that. It probes a haunting moral question -- given a chance at life, even temporary life, at the price of aiding the enemy, as against certain immediate death, what path will a man, will you, choose?

The title of Brazil's entry, "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation," seems to promise a romp about fun-filled mishaps during a family outing, but the actual plot is much more challenging.

In 1970, Brazil is in the grip of a repressive military dictatorship that hunts down leftist dissidents, like the Jewish Daniel Stein and his Catholic wife, the parents of 12-year-old Mauro.

When the parents have to flee, they hastily deposit Mauro outside the apartment house of his Orthodox grandfather in the heavily Jewish Bom Retiro neighborhood of São Paulo.

In a quick farewell, the parents tell the boy that they are going on a vacation but will return by the time Brazil plays in the World Soccer Cup.

To Mauro, and his countrymen, soccer is a religion, and the World Cup frenzy makes the Super Bowl look like a languid lawn crocket game.

When Mauro knocks on the grandfather's door, there is no answer, and the abandoned boy is reluctantly taken in by Shlomo, an elderly bachelor and synagogue shammes.

As the weeks pass with no word from the parents, Mauro, now renamed Moishele, gets to know the local yentas, a precocious 11-year-old girl, a sexy Italian waitress and baton-swinging cops.

At regular intervals, everybody, including the rabbi on the bimah, goes crazy, while the Brazilian team, including the immortal Pele, beats team after team on its way to its third consecutive World Cup title.

Michel Joelsas, who was discovered in the classroom of a Jewish school, plays Mauro with unflinching honesty. Like his character, Michel's father is Jewish and his mother is Catholic.

So are the father and mother of the film's director and co-writer, a tall, muscular Brazilian with the unlikely name of Cao Hamburger.

His grandparents came to Brazil as refugees from Nazi Germany, and his parents were temporarily imprisoned during the military dictatorship.

Hamburger also grew up in São Paulo, though not in a Jewish neighborhood. The film includes touches of his own life but he rejects the idea that the movie is autobiographical.

"I was raised without any particular religion, but learned about Jewish culture from my father's parents and about Italian culture from my mother's parents," he said during a poolside interview at a Westside hotel.

"A few years ago, I was living in London, and while I was in a foreign environment I started to think about my Jewish roots and did some research," he recalled. "So that's how I ultimately arrived at the idea for the film."

In his native country, "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation," though not a blockbuster, has been a bigger commercial success than Hamburger had expected. He gives part of the credit to Brazil's 200,000 Jews, "of whom every one saw the film."

Israel, by a curious twist, has two films competing in different Oscar categories this year.Last September, the Israel Film Academy picked "The Band's Visit" as top picture of the year, thus automatically qualifying it as the country's entry in the Oscar race for best foreign language film.

Under the rules of the American Academy, more than half of the dialogue in such films must be in the country's own language.

However, "Band's Visit," whose binational characters communicate mainly in broken English, didn't meet the requirement and was disqualified by the Oscar committee. The film's producers didn't take this lying down and entered the movie in the general Oscar categories of best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress.

However, the runner-up in the Israeli Academy voting, "Beaufort," moved up to become Israel's foreign-language film entry.

Both Israeli pictures do their country's increasingly skillful film industry proud, but it is impossible to compare their relative merits. It's not apples vs. oranges, but more like "Beaufort" as a prickly cactus against the sweet apricot tang of "Band Visit."

"Beaufort" is a war movie, depicting the end of the first Lebanon War, not in the glory of victory but in its indecisive, exhausted end.

When Israel advanced into Lebanon in 1982, the first Israeli victory was the capture of the Beaufort fortress, close to the Israeli border and built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.

Eighteen years later, when Israel pulled out of Lebanon, the last action was to abandon and blow up the massive fortress.

Joseph Cedar, the New York-born Israeli director, who riled his fellow Orthodox compatriots with his two previous, award-winning movies, "Time of Favor" and "Campfire," is himself a combat veteran of the Lebanon War.

He depicts the misery, fear and squalor of the last Israeli contingent to hold Beaufort, under constant missile attack, as only an insider can.

Though a success at international film festivals and in Israel, "Beaufort" has come under criticism, especially for a scene in which fear freezes the young commanding officer into temporary immobility.

Cedar rejects the criticism.

"This is a very positive film about Israeli soldiers, which acknowledges they experience fear," he said in an interview. "In combat, fear itself is a survival tool."

The mellow side of the Middle East, rarely depicted, gets full exposure in "The Band's Visit," which tackles Israeli-Arab relations with wonderfully understated humor.

At the center of the leisurely action is the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, eight Egyptian men in immaculate light-blue uniforms, who have come to Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tikvah.

Nobody meets the band at Ben Gurion Airport and, after futile attempts by the Egyptians and Israelis to communicate in broken English, the group is loaded on a van to Bet Hatikvah, a forlorn settlement in the Negev.

Arriving at the dusty little town, which seems to have been lifted from a John Wayne western, Tewfiq, the leader of the band, asks Dina, the lusty proprietress of a café, for directions to the Arab Cultural Center.

Dina sums up the level of her community by answering that there is "no Arab culture here, no Israeli culture, no culture at all."

The town folks offer to put up the visitors in their homes overnight, and in halting conversations, Israelis and Egyptians talk not about politics and wars, but of their everyday work and families.

Most of the encounters are handled with light humor, often tinged with a touch of sadness, but for one hilarious episode.

A handsome young band member encounters the resident Israeli nebbish and accompanies him on a blind date at a roller skating rink. When the local boy proves too scared to make any advances to his date, the more experienced Egyptian guides him along, wordlessly, but with eloquent gestures.

"Band's Visit" is a very auspicious debut for 34-year-old Eran Kalirin, directing his first feature film. A seventh-generation sabra on his father's side, he said during a visit to Los Angeles that, like many Israelis, he is struggling with his identity.

"The problem is that we are part of the Middle East but live in an increasingly Westernized country," he observed. "I wonder how much of me is Arab, not through genes, but by living in this region."



The four Oscar-contending films will open at various Los Angeles theaters in February and March.

This year's Palm Springs International Film Festival will showcase "New Israeli Cinema: L'Chaim," opening Jan. 6 with a screening of "Beaufort." Other scheduled features are "The Band's Visit," "Jellyfish," "My Father, My Lord," "Noodle," "Sweet Mud" and "Disengagement." Documentaries will include "The Champagne Spy," "Children of the Sun," "Eight Twenty Eight" and "The Quest for a Missing Piece."

The annual Palm Springs film fest, running from Jan. 3-14, will present 230 films from 65 countries. Final schedule will be announced Dec. 23 and can be obtained by calling (800) 898-7256.



For more information, visit http://www.laemmle.com or http://www.psfilmfest.org.









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