Jewish Film Festival
by Sandor Slomovits
When the annual Jewish Film Festival returns to the Michigan Theater Sunday through Thursday, May 6-10, it will bring movies from more than half a dozen countries. The range of subjects in the nineteen films featured is even greater, encompassing not only a wide variety of themes and issues but also much of the spectrum of human emotions. Two films spotlight opposite poles of that spectrum, Steel Toes and Checking Out.
In Steel Toes, which opens the festival on Sunday, May 6, Danny Dunkelman, a Jewish court-appointed lawyer, is assigned to defend Mike Downey, a Montreal skinhead accused of a brutal murder. Downey has used his steel-toed leather combat boots, standard skinhead uniform, to kick an Indian man to death, after a supposed slight.
Dunkelman greets his imprisoned client with "I don't like skinheads and neo-Nazis. I'm not sure that makes me the best person to argue your case." Downey shoots back disdainfully, "You're a humanist liberal Jew, so you gotta do your best." And there it all is; both men are forced to confront their received stereotypical notions and see each other as the complex human beings they are. When Downey in a chillingly matter-of-fact tone says to Dunkelman, "In an ideal world, I'd have you eliminated," we must, along with Dunkelman, confront the possibility that despite abhorring Downey's methods, we might feel the same way about him. When in the next breath Downey adds, "In this world I need you more than anyone," we also must contemplate the value of men like Dunkelman in our world. Oscar nominee David Strathairn portrayed another morally courageous character, the 1950s broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, in Good Night and Good Luck, and here he brilliantly conveys Dunkelman's agonizing inner struggles and ambivalence.
At the other end of the emotional scale is Checking Out, shown on Monday, May 7. With a very high punch-lines-per-minute ratio, it features Peter Falk at his comedic best. A good thing, too, since the
film is ostensibly about a ninety-year-old who summons his three children home to attend his suicide party. But Falk's Morris Applebaum is no ordinary nonagenarian. Along with his late wife, Vera, he was a Yiddish Theater star who also specialized in Shakespeare. Here he is Prospero conjuring a huge familial Tempest, or Big Fat Jewish Suicide, as his daughter notes.
Checking Out is not all laugh riot. Morris roars with indignation at his car dealer son for selling German automobiles, and even more for quoting Hamlet to advertise them. He speaks poignantly of his grief at Vera's death and justifies his planned suicide with "I was an actor. I always knew the end. I didn't live as an audience, not knowing what was coming next."
When his therapist son (Judge Reinhold) complains, "This is serious," Morris responds, "That's why we're joking."
Both these films and indeed all the other movies in the festival are about human, rather than exclusively Jewish, stories.
[Review published May 2007]