So many film festivals have been supersized that, in order to find a decent movie, attendees usually need to do their planning with a map and a GPS device. The Boston Jewish Film Festival, which gets underway Tuesday, is more manageable -- it has 50-some titles, including features and shorts, and is well programmed enough to keep a moviegoer from duds.
The festival also knows its audience, and that's not as self-evident as it might sound. Even a focused event risks pandering or insult by rigging its schedule with too many crowd-pleasers. While this year's BJFF lineup, the 17th, has its predictable heart warmers, a few movies, including ''Sarah Silverman: ''Jesus Is Magic" and Marc Levin's ''Protocols of Zion," wage an assault on complacency without forsaking entertainment value.
This year the festival's organizers are trying to bring in the kids with such films as the hourlong documentary ''Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School," which tells the story of a Brookline teen who tries to start a gay-straight alliance at the New Jewish School. Her coming out has a seismic effect, inspiring several faculty members to swing open their closet doors. The festival has added more night screenings and one midnight show, the documentary ''Jericho's Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land." When's the last time a film festival reached out to local punk-rock Jews?
The festival also tries to shine a light on many far-flung aspects of modern Judaism. Monica Haim's documentary ''Awake Zion" traces a connection between Jews and Rastafarians through music and scripture. Jesse Atlas's documentary ''At the Green Line" is, in part, about Israeli soldiers struggling with the morality of fighting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It lasts less than an hour but easily could have gone on longer. The festival is a boon for short, scholastic nonfiction profiles.
The movies here are from all over the world -- 16 countries, to be exact, with a good slice from France. Representing Hollywood is the adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel ''Bee Season," with Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche. It's a weeper about a crumbling marriage and the champion speller who could save it. At the other end of the spectrum, there's the rarely seen depiction of Orthodox life in Gidi Dar and Shuli Rand's gala-fund-raiser film, ''Ushpizin," a rollicking folk comedy about a penniless married couple and their nightmarish houseguests.
Here's a guide to some of the festival's highlights.
A widow (Michaela Eshet) wants to move herself and her two teenage daughters to a West Bank settlement. While they await official approval from the community, each of the three ventures into complicated sexual territory. Written by Joseph Ceder, this is a coming-of-age movie that manages to turn family cliches into something movingly adult.
If you take your sitcoms with extra Peter Falk, this could be the movie for you. He plays a charismatic stage actor who invites his adult kids home for a party to be followed by his suicide. Based on a play, it's not as cringe-inducing as it sounds and has some wit. Laura San Giacomo, David Paymer, and Judge Reinhold play the appalled offspring, and the acting is generously directed. Still, Falk's disregard for subtlety might be too much. He puts the broad in Broadway.
Watching an actor look for work is only as interesting as his desperation. Robert Margolis, in the mock documentary he wrote and directed with Frank Matter, is pretty desperate: The rent money is used for head shots. Margolis is playing the worst-case scenario of himself, a 40-ish struggling actor in New York City. As nothing goes his way, the film grows increasingly painful. The story isn't always convincing, but its tacit suggestion that actors have a lot in common with junkies is.
Lajos Koltai's movie, which closes the festival, is an unstinting Holocaust epic centered on the impossible survival of a Hungarian boy (Marcell Nagy). Based on the autobiography of Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz, the film reveals the physical toll taken on a young body. It even makes clear the stamina required to eat (if there happens to be food). Once it's over you're spent, too.
'The First Time I Was
The tremendous Marilou Berry, that cherubic doubter from ''Look at Me," takes another musical-outcast role. This one has bite. She plays a feminist upright bassist in a 1960s suburban Paris high school who is incessantly harassed by the boys in the jazz quintet she's voted into. Her family doesn't get the music, but, unlike her father in ''Look at Me," they support her, despite how abrasive and cripplingly insecure she is.
Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri's Spanish screwball comedy is the most disarming of movies. A mild-mannered woman (Marian Aguilera) brings her new boyfriend (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet her Jewish family. He's polite, he's loving, he's Palestinian. A trite sitcom turns magically into an incisive farce, with the peerless Norma Aleandro as mom.
Catherine Deneuve stars as the psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, an aristocrat who helped free her shrink and teacher, Sigmund Freud (Heinz Bennent), and his family from the grip of the Nazis. Among several other things, the film is a fascinating saga about the relationship between these two minds. It originally aired on French TV last year, and don't let the three-hour run time deter you. Benoit Jacquot, the French director of ''A Single Girl," ''Sade," and ''A Tout de Suite," prefers a glibness that can be entertaining and more often maddening, but here he's working with a nuanced screenplay that gets beneath the surface of sex and sexual dysfunction.
Marc Levin's intriguing documentary sets out to explore the persistent rumor that no Jews died in the Sept. 11 attacks. He winds up engaged in some volcanic discourse over the belief that Jews have masterminded world events. Levin meets a white-power leader with a dubious grasp on Hitler, has several uncomfortable visits with some young Arab-Americans in New Jersey, and spends one surreal passage talking to people about Mel Gibson's ''The Passion of the Christ." Inevitably, the film's roving, exploratory format evokes Michael Moore, but unlike Moore, Levin's intellectual curiosity has not been short-circuited by righteousness.
Jesus Is Magic'
This film of Silverman's stand-up act runs the gamut of vulgarity from bedwetting to rape. Her girlish approach to her topics (she whines and pouts, and smiles in mock guilt) gives the material its danger. The shock is that she treats racism and anti-Semitism and filth as ideas you get from the Children's Television Workshop. The stuff in front of a live audience is intercut with music videos (funny) and dressing-room interludes (not funny). But Silverman has a brutal, brilliant way with the obscene. It will be fun to see who makes a beeline for the exit.
Ami Ankilewitz suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy that was supposed to kill him before he turned 6. Despite the long odds, he's now 34, and this documentary follows him as he leaves his Israeli home for an American road trip that brings him to the doctor who gave him the faulty prognosis. Ami's an animator, and too much of his cartoon has made it into Dani Menkin's movie: The sentiments it expresses are emotionally redundant. Still, if you leave this film unmoved, you probably aren't human.
Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris.com.
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