19th New York
Jewish Film Festival
The Film Society of Lincoln Center & The
January 13 - 28, 2010
Within the Whirlwind
Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open
Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani’s Ajami
Alain Tasma’s Ultimatum
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
I had the pleasure of seeing four
of the thirty-two features that screened at this
year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. And
all four impressed me.
Emily Watson in Within
Marleen Gorris’ gripping
and unnerving portrait of Jewish poet and professor
Evgenia Ginzburg’s plight in Stalinist Russia,
Within the Whirlwind, could have easily
been the type of predictable, manipulative biopic
we have come to expect from filmmakers. Instead
we get an intelligent, uncompromising story of a
woman who becomes a victim of the government she
has been fiercely loyal to all her life—not
an uncommon occurrence during the Stalin Regime.
Emily Watson delivers a terrifically
understated, stunner of a performance as Literature
professor and stalwart Communist Ginzburg who, in
the mid-1930s, begins to watch everyone around her
being accused of disloyalty. She is soon arrested
on trumped up charges, ripped from her family and
sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag.
Written by Nancy Larson, based
on the memoirs of Ginzburg, the film plays like
a lovely visual poem. Even the bleak, stark landscapes
of Siberia have a beauty about them. Gorris excels
at showing us the horrors of prison life in a startlingly
I wish the politics in the film
had been clarified a bit--especially for audience
members who aren’t well-versed in Stalinism
vs. Trotskyism and the history of the paranoid dictator’s
mass murders and imprisonments. At 98 minutes the
pic could have benefited from a longer running time
explaining the milieu more, especially in the early
scenes before Ginzburg is hauled off the prison.
In addition, it was slightly disconcerting
that the setting is Russia and we see the Russian
language written, but everyone speaks English. I
understand that this particular suspension of disbelief
has long been accepted—but in 2010, it feels
Regardless, the film is definitely
worth seeing—especially for the brilliant
and truly underrated Emily Watson and the unlikely
love story at the core of the work, which provides
evidence that even in the worst conditions the human
spirit can triumph.
Yet…sometimes it is devalued,
demeaned and destroyed…
Eyes Wide Open
Haim Tabakman’s sensitive
and compelling Eyes Wide Open has the audacity
to depict the dangers of religious zealotry. The
film also dares to follow through with its narrative
The ultra-indie film takes place
in an ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem where
thirtysomething Aaron, a devout butcher and devoted
husband and father of four boys, hires twentysomething
Ezri, a good looking Yeshiva student, to work in
his shop after his father dies. Ezri has come to
the city in pursuit of another man who is now ignoring
him. Aaron’s brotherly feelings for Ezri quickly
become something more.
As the layers of Aaron’s
repressed homosexuality begin to peel away, he experiences
a joy he has never felt before. A starkly photographed
scene where the two men bathe in a spring nicely
captures their growing attraction to one another.
Aaron lives in a small community
where everyone has their noses in everyone else’s
business and soon certain townfolk demand that Aaron
send Ezri away. Posters begin appearing warning
of the deviance that now exists in their community.
Helmer Tabakman and writer Merov
Doster are uncompromising in their portrait, never
deluding themselves or the audience into believing
their characters live in any type of world other
than the one they live in. Consequently, the film’s
ending is devastating, poetic and absolutely perfect.
Eyes Wide Open probes
how religious righteousness often stifles individuality
and retards sexuality. The film is not a condemnation
of Judaism as much as it is a warning against narrow-minded
Zohar Strauss is extraordinary
as Aaron, showing us his conflict but also making
us privy to his life-altering awakening. Popular
Israeli star Ron Danker gives Ezri all the shadings
necessary; he’s walking sex but he’s
also a lonely boy in search of love and acceptance.
The intimate moments in the film
are awkward, ergo, realistic and strangely erotic.
There’s a genuine sadness in watching these
desperate men hold one another.
Eyes Wide Open is ultimately
Aaron’s story. He’s a man who discovers
a passion he never expected to find in his life—and
it’s life changing. I never really believed
Ezri was in love with Aaron. I don’t think
we are given enough info to really know but the
film isn’t about a forbidden love that dare
not speak its name. It’s about one man’s
spiritual and sexual awakening. It is also about
how vital it is that people be allowed to express
who and what they are. And about the many milieus
within this world that shun and ostracize those
who would dare be themselves.
Writer/Director Alain Tasma’s
taut, suspenseful ensemble thriller, Ultimatum,
weaves a series of characters through the intense
drama of preparing for the inevitable Gulf War of
1990. The film blends Israeli, French and Italian
actors and settings with preparation plots filled
with fear, trepidation and, miraculously, joy.
Saddam Hussein’s threat
that “Israel will be destroyed” hangs
over the film and reminds us that the threat of
chemical and biological warfare usage was a reality
at the time and Israelis were forced to take the
necessary precautions such as wearing masks during
air raids and creating safe rooms.
Adapted from Valerie Zenatti's
2006 novel, Ultimatum does a fantastic
job of giving us a glimpse of what it was like to
live through that time in that particular part of
Tasma anchors his film with two wonderful young
leads: Italian actress Jasmine Trinca who has given
terrific performances in films like Romanzo
Criminale (Crime Novel) and La
Meglio Gioventu’ (Best of Youth)
and French actor Gaspard Ulliel, best known here
for Hannibal Rising and A Very Long
Engagement. Both are to be commended, although
Ulliel has the more difficult part since Nathanael
is a very angry, erratic, misanthropic nihilist.
Trinca grounds the film with her grace and depth—she
also manages to believably speak all three languages.
And while not all the plots are
fully realized, the film comes to a karmically satisfying
The cinematography, by Dominique
Bouilleret, is to be praised for sustaining the
Ultimatum grabs the viewer
from the get-go and takes him/her on a terror-ride
that forces it’s characters (and said viewer)
to take stock in the way they currently live their
Israel’s Best Foreign Language
Film entry, Ajami, is more complex, ambitious
and, consequently, problematic than the three films
above. The film reminded me of the equally overrated
City of God.
structure is reminiscent of Crash, Babel,
21 Grams and even the TV series Damages
where sequences jump back and forth in order to
fill in more plot blanks until we are supposed to
have some semblance of a full notion of what is
going on. (This is a device I admittedly love.)
Along the way we encounter plot clues, character
nuance as well as red herrings and when the full
picture is painted there should be some kind of
Seven years in the making, Ajami
is written and directed by Scandar Copti & Yaron
Shani, a Palestinian and an Israeli, respectively.
From the press notes: “Ajami
is a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and
opposite human perspectives.”
The multi-ethnic neighborhood
of Ajami is home to Jews, Muslims and Christians
which makes it rich for storytelling but the plot
of the film is a convoluted cornucopia of confusion,
which makes it simultaneously maddening and fascinating.
In Chapter One (the film is broken
into five “chapters”), Israeli Muslim
Omar and his family are embroiled in a crazy situation
they had no control over and now find themselves
hunted by a powerful gangster. To complicate matters,
Omar is in love with Hadir, a Christian, the daughter
of Abu-Elias, the man who is trying to broker a
deal to save Omar and his family by allowing them
to pay their way free. Confused yet? And this is
one of the simpler-to-follow plots.
In Chapter Two we meet 16-year
old Palestinian Malek who is illegally working for
Abu-Elias to earn money for his mother’s bone-marrow
transplant operation. He is soon embroiled in a
drug-related mess he has no control over.
By the time we get to Chapter
Three where we meet Dando, the Israeli police officer
searching for his missing soldier-brother and Binj,
a rich Palestinian forced to hide his brother’s
stash of crystal meth, I began to lose interest.
Mistaken identity, random happenstance
and chaotic order (yes, I am being deliberately
facetious) run rampant in Ajami which is
what makes the film so worthwhile and deserving
of a second viewing—especially if you felt
alienated by it--the way I did--midway through.
Perhaps I missed something that threw me off track
but, for me, the momentum was lost. I did find it
again in Chapters 4 and 5 when the grit mounts,
the plot stews over and certain threads are finally
The cast of unknowns is uniformly
good and the camerawork is impeccable, reminding
me of the underrated Italian film Gomorrah.
In the end I found Ajami,
a powerful if oddly unmoving experience; a film
to be more admired than loved.