An Old Story Retold/A New Festival Carries On

Simon and the Oaks, the new Swedish film that's opening today in NYC, retells a familiar story of adopted chldren with biological family secrets. By putting the story in the context of the Shoah, it makes the cut for me to review it for Jewish Week, and you can find the story here


 When the Gold Coast Film Festival was launched last year on Long Island, my long-ago stomping grounds, I was as much amused as pleased. Certainly the metropolitan area needs more film festivals like I need . . . more film festivals. However, on the strength of their second year schedule, they probably are filling a real need on the Island. Certainly two the Jewish-themed films on the program are worthy of much wider audiences than they have had so far. When it played New Directors/New Films earlier this year, I wrote of The Rabbi's Cat:

The Rabbi’s Cat is Joann Sfar’s second directorial effort (this time in collaboration with Antoine Delesvaux) and it’s a definite upgrade from his Serge Gainsbourg biopic, if only because the energy never flags and the eponymous hero has none of Gainsbourg’s questionable behaviors. The cat, who has no name, is a creature of pure appetite, given to eating fish and birds without hesitation. (Come to think of it, he’s more like Gainsbourg than I thought, but he doesn’t do drugs or booze.) After apparently eating the rabbi’s parrot, he gains the ability to speak and almost immediately adds two new tricks to his repertoire, Talmudic disputation and lying.

Adapting his own books for the film, Sfar has concocted an entertainingly elaborate story that combines such classic elements of children’s adventure as a quest for a lost utopian city, a hunt for treasure and a close-knit band of friends to share it all with. Sfar and Delesvaux also have an eye on the adults in their audience and the film is as rich in its supply of inside jokes as the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the ‘40s and ‘50s, ranging from a playfully snarky homage to Tintin to a rather pointed dig at contemporary Russian monarchists. The underlying message of the film is one of tolerance for diversity and for feline desires for fish, both of them admirable themes energetically enacted.

Restoration, also in the festival, is even better, one of the best films I've seen in 2012. Here's what I said back in January:

Restoration, an Israeli film by Joseph Madmony, opens with  a pair of hands removing a wristwatch and putting it inside a old tin. We then see a series of shots of those same hands working old wood with a combination of fervor and delicacy that one can only find in a dedicated master craftsman. Fidelman (Sasson Gabai, head  of the Egyptian police band in The Band’s Visit) is just such a craftsman, although his antique furniture business is on the edge of bankruptcy. When his partner dies of a heart attack, Fidelman is forced to rely on his upwardly mobile son Noah (Nevo Kimchi), a lawyer with connections and plans and a very pregnant wife (Sarah Adler)  Or would he better off trusting the enigmatic younger man, Anton (Henry David), who has turned up looking for work?

Although the plot line about a stranger who inserts himself into an unstable family situation is an old chestnut, Madmony manages to work an interesting series of variations on the story. From that opening shot of a man who puts time aside (literally) in the pursuit of a vocation that is more like a calling through the entire credit sequence of Fidelman’s hands at work, ending with a close-up of Gabai peering at his own reflection in a glistening table top – the first time we see his face, albeit  in a fragmented form – you are immediately aware that this master craftsman is being depicted by a filmmaker who is his equal. The progression is also an inspired metaphor for a man who has stepped out of time in order to reverse its effects, but who is, at best, only a partially integrated human being whose only identity comes from his work.

Madmony eschews the easy, melodramatic choices. Like Fidelman, a man who represses his feelings in front of others but is burning inside, Madmony works magic through the manipulation of the physical environment, the shop’s endless, choking clutter, the dust that seems to hang in the air everywhere, the film’s muted palette of cool blues and grays. Restoration is a muted but finally powerful film about inter-generational conflict and loyalty, one of the best films to play the [New York Jewish Film] festival in several years.

The Gold Coast Film Festival opens in Great Neck and other nearby locales on October 22. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to their website.