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The 19th New York
Jewish Film Festival
Presented by
The Film Society of Lincoln Center & The Jewish Museum
January 13 - 28, 2010

Marleen Gorris’ 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 the Whirlwind

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 graceful manner.

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 odd.

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 ambitions.

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 extremism.

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 the world.

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 conclusion.

The cinematography, by Dominique Bouilleret, is to be praised for sustaining the necessary tension.

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 lives.


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.

Ajami’s non-linear 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 catharsis.

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 sewn together.

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.






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