Tzivi's Guide to the 10th Annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema
By JAN LISA HUTTNER
Patrons of this year’s Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC) will have a rare opportunity to see one of the most significant accomplishments in the history of Israeli Cinema: all three parts of “The Amsalem Trilogy”—To Take a Wife, Shiva, and Gett—will be shown on Tuesday Nov. 3 in the order in which these three films first appeared on Israeli movie screens.
Audiences were introduced to “Viviane Amsalem” (Ronit Elkabetz) and her husband “Eliahou” (Simon Abkarian) in 2004 in To Take a Wife (Ve’Lakhta Lehe Isha). To Take a Wife was so low-budget that I don’t even think it was ever available in American theatres. I only saw it myself when it was released on DVD. That was at the end of 2009, after the success of Shiva in 2008. But by the time Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was released last year, Ronit Elkabetz—who not only stars but also co-wrote and co-directed all three parts in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz—had become an international “shero” to women all around the world.
In 2014, the Israel Film Academy named Gett “Best Israeli Film of the Year.” It went on to receive a prestigious Golden Globe nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Then the National Board of Review (USA) named it one of the Top Five Foreign Language Films of 2014.
So I strongly urge you to see all three parts with us at the AMC Northbrook Court on Nov. 3—yes, I will be there in person too—but if you simply cannot make it, then consult the summary I have posted on my blog so you can participate in the conversations that are sure to follow each time a set of credits roll.
“The Amsalem Trilogy” screenings occur midway through an excellent line-up that runs from Wednesday Oct. 28 through Sunday Nov. 8. This year, the CFIC team has also added a bonus day on Sunday Nov. 15 at the Marcus Chicago Heights Cinema (a new venue for khaverim in the South Suburbs).
This year’s new filmmaker to watch is Lee Gilat, the writer/director of Encirclements. Encirclements is a magical film about a boy selected to carry a Torah around his neighborhood on the Simchat Torah holiday. In a spare 90 minutes, Gilat creates a rich, dense, and thoroughly believable community. This is a masterful debut from someone with theatrical and television credits, who has now turned to feature films. Brava!
Naruna Kaplan De Macedo stars as “Myla” in Is That You? She looks a bit like Zooey Deschanel, thus priming the audience to expect another “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” character. But to their credit, screenwriters Dani Menkin and Eshkol Nevo have given “Myla” her own poignant and complex arc, and Naruna Kaplan De Macedo totally holds her own in scenes with Alon Aboutboul (who I named Best Actor last year for his starring role in A Place in Heaven).
Kudos also to the four young actors in Encirclements, Agam Ozalvo as “Aharon Ninio” (the boy who carries the Torah) as well as Noa Astanjelove, Shay Elkayam, and Omer Hazan who play his neighbors in the Vaknin family (“Aliza, “Tami,” and “Meir”). Shout-Out to Gilat’s Casting Director: These kids are terrifically talented, and I expect to see more of all four of them in future.
Best Feature Film
The Best Feature Film of 2015 is The Farewell Party, a Black Comedy about a group of friends facing their last years together in a Jerusalem retirement community. Filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon—who co-wrote and co-directed together—dazzled me with their ability to walk the razor's edge between comedy and tragedy. The humor is so totally Jewish through and through that I’ll bet Sholem Aleichem was “up there” somewhere laughing through his tears too.
This year—for the first time—I am also adding a Best Screenplay category in honor of Is That You? Ostensibly this is a road movie with many genre tropes, but the dialogue is so beautifully written that sometimes I found myself gasping as I watched. Although his name is not in my press materials and it is not on IMDb, I detected the name of award-winning Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo as the credits rolled, and then it all made sense.
Kudos to director Dani Menkin for finding collaborators who could help him write the perfect words for his perfect cast. Then add a shout-out to composer Issar Shulman for his lovely musical score (which is augmented by songs chosen personally by Menkin and melded together by Philip Gozlan’s sound design).
Silicon Wadi is a superlative doc about four Israeli Start-Ups. Two teams will succeed and two teams will fail, but as the film moves into its third act, I challenge you to guess the winners. This is one of the most riveting 82 minutes ever captured on film, and I was frankly stunned by the outcome. I commend all four teams for their courage in allowing filmmakers Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch to keep their cameras rolling through all the ups and downs. And I compliment the filmmakers on their inventive camera moves and musical choices. At one point, contracts fly around a conference room table while Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (the music associated with the English words “On October 31 when the sun goes to rest…”) build from a whisper to a roar on the soundtrack. Everyone in the room is too busy signing to speak, so it is the music that carries the message. Yowza!
This was the toughest category to call this year, but in the end, after seesawing back and forth, my choice is Ze’ev Revach for his portrayal of “Yehezkel” (yah-hezz-kul) in The Farewell Party. We first meet Yehezkel during a late night telephone call with his friend "Zelda" (Ruth Geller). Yehezkel--a fixer who is always tinkering with new contraptions—has created a voice box to amplify his sound because he wants Zelda--who is bedridden--to believe she is speaking directly to God. Since Zelda thinks God is now personally watching over her, she is finally able to go back to sleep. But Yehezkel stops laughing when "Yana" (Aliza Rosen) calls. Her husband Max is in terrible pain, so Yana throws herself on Yehezkel's mercy. Can he invent something that will release Max from his agony? And so it begins…
The runner-up in this category—of course—is Alon Aboutboul, who stars as “Roni” in Is That You?
My pick for 2015 is Assi Levy who stars as “Rosa Ninio,” the mother of the boy who carries the Torah on Simchat Torah in Encirclements. Assi Levy is one of Israel’s greatest actresses, best-known for the role of “Aviva” in Aviva My Love (for which she won an Ophir Award in the Best Actress category from the Israel Film Academy in 2006). Her grace, gravitas, and quiet strength as Rosa Ninio moved me beyond words, and now I will never forget the moral of the story of the princess and the golden feather.
Best Supporting Actress
Levana Finkelstein co-stars as Yehezkel's beloved wife "Levana" in The Farewell Party. Although Yehezkel always covers for her, Levana’s memory problems have reached a critical point. A proudly creative cook, Levana keeps urging her beloved granddaughter “Libby” (Mia Katan) to eat, but when Libby finally spits out a cookie in disgust, Levana suddenly realize she has used salt instead of sugar... It is a devastating moment for Levana, and for the audience as well.
Best Supporting Actor
One might assume that Lior Ashkenazi (a major Israeli star since his breakthrough role in Late Marriage in 2001) would be the male lead in Encirclements, but no. In this case it’s not that he has graciously stepped aside for young Agam Ozalvo who plays his son Aharon—the boy who carries the Torah—but more that his character, “Bezalel Ninio,” has willfully absented himself from daily life as lived by his son Aharon and his wife Rosa. And so—playing Bezalel—Ashkenazi is not quite a fully drawn character in Encirclements, but more like a dark shadow in the background.
And this brings us full circle, back to “The Amsalem Trilogy.” If you have only seen Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, you are unlikely to have much sympathy for Viviane’s husband “Eliahou” (Simon Abkarian). Why is he so stubborn? Why won’t he give her a divorce after so many years of first emotional, and then physical estrangement
Encirclements is a more gently-told film, without any of the rage at the status quo which propels Gett, and yet the two husbands have much in common as characters. If only the compassionate Rabbi played by Uri Gavriel in Encirclements had served on Viviane Amsalem’s Rabbinical Court, maybe things might have turned out differently for Eliahou too.
For a complete schedule (including information on ticket purchases), visit the CFIC website.
TZIVI'S SHORT LIST
Documentaries: Highly Recommended
The Polgar Variant
East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem
Farewell Herr Schwartz
Guardians of Remembrance
Narrative Feature Films: Highly Recommended
The Amsalem Trilogy
The Farewell Party
Is That You?
Narrative Feature Films: Recommended
Apples from the Dessert
NOTE: Three short features and six TV episodes are also on the schedule, but I have not seen any of them yet.
For a complete schedule (including information on ticket purchases), visit the CFIC website.
This is the 10 th Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, and Jan Lisa Huttner-who now lives in Brooklyn-has covered many of them for JUF News. Jan thanks the CFIC Committee for enabling her to perform this annual labor of love, and hopes to see old friends and new at the AMC Northbrook Court on Nov. 3.
JUF Post: 9/25/2015