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SCREEN TIME: ‘AJFF’ goes virtual this year

Twelve day viewing window offered

Persian Lessons (3)
Photo credit: Courtesy the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
ESCAPE PLAN: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart stars in ‘Persian Lessons’ at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival

For its 22nd year, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival — the world’s largest Jewish film festival — shifts to an all-virtual format due to COVID concerns. The festival’s Virtual Cinema will have a 12-day viewing window of features and shorts from around the world. — Curt Holman

$16 for single general admission streaming, $32 for household streaming. Wed., Feb. 16-Sun., Feb. 27. ajff.org

The Survivor — The Opening Night feature of this year’s AJFF unfolds like a self-conscious hybrid of Raging Bull and Schindler’s List as it depicts an Auschwitz survivor (Ben Foster) who has a post-war American boxer. Like Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta, Foster gives an implosive performance with a striking physical transformation, going from an emaciated prisoner forced to fight other Jews, to a fleshy, self-loathing post-war pugilist. The gravity of the grim material weighs down the narrative without offering new insights, but Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson shows flashes of his 1980s heyday with light-hearted scenes from such supporting players as Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo.

Persian Lessons — This Russian-Belorussian Holocaust drama tells a unique story of a Jewish concentration camp prisoner (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who impersonates a Persian, only to be forced by a Nazi officer (Lars Eidinger) to teach him the language he doesn’t speak. The potentially farcical situation turns into a taut cat-and-mouse drama as the prisoner ingeniously crafts fictional vocabulary and the sadistic officer gradually warms to him. Persian Lessons’ subplots track the romances and petty gossip among the German overseers, which have dynamics like a high school run by murderers. Ukranian director Vadim Perelman directs a highlight of this year’s festival.

Plan A — This espionage-style drama begins where many Holocaust films end, as Max (August Diehl), a Jewish camp survivor returns to his home, only to find post-war Germany still rife with anti-Semitism. Max joins a secret group that hunts fugitive Nazis, which then charges him with infiltrating a radical organization that plots a vengeful mass murder. This English-language film from Israeli directors Yoav and Doron Paz features some pedestrian dialogue and storytelling clichés, but Diehl’s powerful performance suggests Christopher Walken at his most haunted.

Women of Valor — The festival’s official Closing Night feature is the North American premiere of Anna Somershaf’s high-impact documentary, depicting how Israeli women are forbidden from holding office in the political parties of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community. Esty Shushan is one of several activists fighting for democratic representation in the face of conservative opposition, including stalkers in real life and social media. Women of Valor can get lost in the weeds of the political process (at least for an American viewer), but it depicts how the fight for democratic rights is a global struggle. —CL—