International flavors at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
Critic Curt Holman takes a look at the festival's top billing
With uncanny timing, the 13th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will present three screenings of the documentary Koch mere days after the death of the colorful New York mayor. New York sometimes seems like the epicenter for the festival's provocative fare, which this year includes a 25th anniversary screening of the Manhattan rom-com Crossing Delancey. Nevertheless, this year's lineup includes more than 70 films from 24 countries for a flavor that's less East Coast than international.
The closing night film No Place on Earth ( 7:15 p.m., Wed., Feb. 20, Lefont Sandy Springs) begins with a New Yorker, as caving hobbyist Chris Nicola explores a Ukrainian cavern and discovers signs of human habitation. Nicola's search to learn the secret of the subterranean residents segues to the tale of a Jewish family who took shelter in caves for a year and a half during Ukraine's Nazi occupation.
Offering an unusual perspective for a Holocaust documentary, No Place on Earth interviews a group of now-elderly siblings, shot against lightless, cave-like backgrounds, for gripping descriptions of foraging for food and hiding from the Gestapo. At times, it's like a nightmarish, real-life version of Fantastic Mr. Fox. In addition to the spectacular footage of the caves themselves, the film features extensive, largely dialogue-free re-creations of the family's struggle to survive.
Another unusual Holocaust documentary, Portrait of Wally (11 a.m., Sun., Feb. 3, GTC Merchants Walk; noon, Mon., Feb. 11, Lefont Sandy Springs) follows the tortured journey of the title object instead of a person. Lea Bondi, a Jewish gallery owner in Austria, owned the Egon Schiele oil painting of his mistress Valerie "Wally" Neuzil until it was confiscated by a Nazi collector in 1939. Bondi tried to retrieve the painting after World War II, but, through suspicious means, it fell into the hands of an obsessive collector, where it remained for decades until an exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the late 1990s.
At first a seemingly cut-and-dry example of Nazi plunder, Portrait of Wally takes a complex turn when MoMA and the community of wealthy patrons objects to U.S. law enforcement's involvement in the case. At times Portrait of Wally hinges on complicated issues involving provenance and litigation, so the film isn't likely to be confused with an art history thriller like The Da Vinci Code. Nevertheless the filmmakers (including a former NPR reporter) deserve credit for maintaining moral urgency in the face of knotty subject matter.
The Israeli narrative feature The Ballad of the Weeping Spring (noon, Tues., Feb. 5, GTC Merchants Walk; 8:15 p.m., Sat., Feb. 9, Atlantic Station; 9 p.m., Wed., Feb. 13, Lefont Sandy Springs) doesn't quite live up to its intriguing premise. Director Benny Torati emulates the narrative cues of spaghetti Westerns and samurai films as the former members of a Mizrahi band put aside some old differences to play a reunion gig in honor of a dying colleague. Bald, brooding Uri Gavriel gives a taciturn but charismatic performance as a musician who reluctantly takes up his instrument like a former gunslinger strapping on his old six-shooter. Awkward shifts between dry comedy and melancholy melodrama, with barely disguised plot twists, make it feel like a missed opportunity.
Finally, I'll be introducing the two screenings of the formulaic but funny Canadian sex comedy My Awkward Sexual Adventure ( 8 p.m., Thurs., Feb. 7, at Atlantic Station, with an appearance by star Jonas Chernick; 9:05 p.m., Thurs., Feb. 14, at Lefont Sandy Springs). When mousy accountant Jordan (Jonas Chernick) gets dumped by his demanding girlfriend (Sarah Manninen) for being a lousy lover, he turns a chance encounter with a combative stripper (Emily Hampshire) into an opportunity. If she teaches him how to enhance his erotic expertise, he'll bring order to her effed-up finances. My Awkward Sexual Adventure amusingly puts healthy money habits on the same footing as a good sex life.
Viewers will quickly realize that kinky experiments will lead to the maximum possible embarrassment, and that love will bloom in unlikely situations. Even if the characters' behavior can try your patience, you can enjoy the jokes: When the third party of a threesome leaves the boudoir, the unclad couple who remains opts to check their smart phones rather than get busy. Even by the raunchy standards of contemporary comedies, My Awkward Sexual Adventure takes an eye-raisingly candid approach to bedroom matters. You might even learn something before it's done.