Pope Francis — A Man of His Word

Posted on May 18, 2018 at 7:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material including images of suffering
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of tragic circumstances including illness and oppression
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ unabashedly admiring documentary about Pope Francis is an intriguing and inspiring look at the man who is breaking a number of precedents in the Holy See. He is the first pope from South America after 265 predecessors, mostly from Italy. He is the first Jesuit, an order known for scholarship who “seek to find God in all things.” And he was the first to choose the name Francis, after the 16th century saint who was devoted to animals and nature.

He is unaffected, explaining that he wants to live very simply. He speaks to audiences and to us via the camera with candor and sincerity on topics ranging from the environment to interfaith understanding to the “three T’s” he says should be the foundations of our lives: in English, they are work (for dignity and contribution to the community — “to imitate God with your hands by creating”), land (to support sustainable resources), and roof (home, family).

Wenders interweaves a re-enactment of moments in the life of St. Francis to show parallels with his namesake. But the heart of the movie is seeing His Holiness interact with the crowds of people who are palpably moved by him. Visiting an American prison, he reminds the inmates that the very first man to become a saint was a prisoner like them. And then, in an act of infinite tenderness, he washes and kisses prisoners’ feet. A girl asks him why he has renounced wealth. He tells her that poverty around the world is a scandal, and “we must all become a little bit poorer…poverty is central to the gospel.” We can see the lugubrious faces of some of the Vatican priests and cardinals, looking as though this is not a welcome interpretation. Later, visiting his home country of Argentina, the crowd almost ecstatic with pride, he reminds them of a local expression: “You can always add water to the beans.”

One of the most striking scenes in the film has images of environmental damage projected onto the outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. “The poorest of the poor is Mother Earth. We have plundered her.” And he reminds us that it is the poorest of the poor who suffer first and most from environmental degradation.

His Holiness appears before the United States Congress and goes to Jerusalem to meet with rabbis and imams. He sits alone in a cell at the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. He speaks movingly to groups and to us about the importance of listening. He misses the connection of taking confession. He says smiles are “the flower of the heart” and speaks of the importance of of having a sense of humor. He tells us the prayer of St. Thomas More he says every morning that always makes him smile.

“An artist is an apostle of beauty,” he tells us. Wenders has taken that to heart and created a film that gives us a rare chance to hear directly from a man whose devotion and compassion will inspire anyone.

Parents should know that this film includes some footage of suffering, including illness, poverty, and abuse.

Family discussion: How do the “three T’s” appear in your life? Why is listening especially important to Pope Francis?

If you like this, try: “The Letters” and “Nuns on the Bus”

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The Best Show on Network Television is The Good Place

Posted on February 5, 2018 at 11:17 pm

Copyright 2017 Fremulon
My favorite network television series is “The Good Place,” which had one of the all-time great twists at the end of the first season and has just completed its even-better second season. Everyone in it is superb, from experienced actors Kristen Bell and Ted Danson to newcomers Jameela Jamil (in her first professional acting role), Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper (you can see him on “The Electric Company” and in the movie “Paterson”), and D’Arcy Carden.

While we wait impatiently for the third season (that last episode opened up some very intriguing possibilities), here are some thoughtful takes on the show.

In the New York Times, James Poniewozik writes about the series’ refreshing optimism, contrary to the trend of the past few years toward antiheroes.

He says it “avoided falling into easy moralizing by committing to the idea that becoming good is hard work,” including “a running crash course in remedial ethics, with the most madcap name-dropping of the greats of moral thought since Monty Python’s ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song.’…orality is not something you have; it’s something you do. It’s a muscle that requires exercise. The show shares with dramas like “Breaking Bad” the belief that being good is hard. But it doesn’t believe that being good is futile.”

At Vulture, Josef Adalian writes about the connection between “The Good Place” and “Lost.”

“The Good Place” showrunner Michael Schur says he asked to be set up on a “playdate” with “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof.

The thing that Damon did for me, which I was very grateful for, the greatest thing anyone any writer can do for another writer, which is to say, “Here are, like, 12 pitfalls you’re about to fall into,” which is exactly what I needed. I needed a person who is conversant in the language of science fiction or genre writing, which I am not, to say to me, “Here are some things that are gonna happen that are dangerous. Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s how to avoid it.” So that was a huge part of how I operated going forward.

He also reveals some details inspired by or in tribute to Lindelof.

My friend and fellow critic Jen Chaney, a big fan of both shows, really drilled down on the connections for Vulture.

There are so many things that make ‘The Good Place’ a rich and delightful experience: the performances delivered by its talented cast, its constant use of inspired puns, the fact that it has created an entire new genre of comedy known as Jacksonville Jaguars Humor. But from the very beginning, ever since creator Mike Schur said that he was partly inspired by ‘Lost’ when he set out to make this series, it has been fascinating to watch the ways in which ‘The Good Place’ uses that ABC series as a touchstone. Some of the parallels between the two shows are obvious. When “The Good Place” began, it was about a group of people who landed in an unknown place and had to learn the rules that governed it while also making their own rules in order to survive, if “survive” is a word that can be used within the context of the afterlife. That’s exactly what happened to the survivors who crashed on the island in “Lost.”

“The Good Place” may just inspire fans to try to be a bit better themselves, and not just to avoid The Bad Place. It might even inspire a few to try some moral philosophy, though if they have been watching the show they have already learned that too much thinking about ethical dilemmas can also be a problem. I guess for the answer to that one, we’ll have to wait for Season Three.

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The Women’s Balcony

Posted on May 19, 2017 at 1:11 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, some characters injured, one severely
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017

Israel’s biggest box-office hit of 2016, “The Women’s Balcony,” is a warm-hearted film about a close-knit Orthodox community living in blissful harmony until their synagogue literally collapses in the middle of a bar mitzvah. The rabbi’s wife is critically injured and the rabbi becomes depressed and foggy-minded. The men of the congregation are grateful when a charismatic rabbinical student known as Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush), offers to help, bringing along his friends to conduct services and raise money to rebuild the temple. But he proves to be a very divisive figure when he urges the congregation to become more strictly observant, suggesting the men give their wives headscarves to cover their hair. The showdown comes when he tells the women that rebuilding the balcony, where the women sit separate from the men during services, will have to come after the creation of a new torah scroll. The women do not agree.

The details of the setting are fascinating, and while unfamiliar to many in American audiences, the elements of an Orthodox Jewish life are presented in a comfortable, respectful, natural manner. The film is immensely charming in its depiction of the quiet, gentle humanity of the community and the way their commitment to Judaism is reflected in every aspect of their lives. Evelin Hagoel is a stand-out as Etie, a grandmother who leads the rebellion and Yafit Asulin is radiant as a shy young woman who finds love. This is an endearing comedy with some thoughtful insights about the way we find and keep finding the sustaining force of grace in our lives.

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Ilya Tovbis on the Washington Jewish Film Festival 2017

Posted on May 15, 2017 at 3:07 pm

It was great to catch up with Ilya Tovbis to hear about this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. I will be hosting “A Classy Broad” and interviewing its subject, trailblazing Hollywood executive Marcia Nasatir and filmmaker Anne Goursaud following the film. The schedule includes a screening of “Clueless” with writer/director Amy Heckerling, and a 45th anniversary screening of “Cabaret.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxTI7Yg-D5Y

Once again, Tovbis found a theme emerging from the films selected, despite the wide variety of genres and countries of origin. “I think the most timely theme that we have identified, very much reflecting the current political moment both nationally and also globally is our Mechanism of Extremism series which is looking at extremism and governments and societies from 1899 through to today. We have also continued a theme from last year which we actually intend to make an annual one, our Rated LGBTQ series. And then lastly on a much lighter side we found a whole lot of comedies of various sorts so we have bundled them together in a series called Laugh Track.

Special guests this year include two Visionary Award winners that Tovbis says he is “thrilled about, Barry Levinson, who based films like “Diner” and “Liberty Heights” on his own experiences. “The other winner is Agnieszka Holland who was Oscar-nominated twice, most recently with ‘In Darkness.’ We’ll be doing a repertory screening of her rarely shown 1985 film ‘Angry Harvest.'”

The films will be of interest to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. “I think we view ourselves first and foremost as a cultural artistic festival that has a Jewish interest. These films will appeal to a large audience that’s interested in great independent cinema. We do outreach to a whole host of organizations including arts organizations, nonprofits, issue driven organizations, different constituencies. As you dive deeper into the films you have this range of 136 events, with something for everyone. We have as always a lot of films on minority and Arab citizens of Israel and then we have some fun partnerships. We’re working with the local version of Comic Con, Awesome Con for our sci-fi films.

Tovbis has scheduled question and answer sessions following many of the films, with the filmmakers or with local experts. “We have a great partnership this year with the US Holocaust Museum and so many of the Holocaust films feature incredible experts from their museum which range from music historians and cultural historians and others dealing with issues of euthanasia and Romany treatment during the Holocaust.”

Many of the films are being shown for the first time in the US or in the area, and some of the older films are rare or recently restored. “And we hope that being in the festival will get distribution for some of the films that are not scheduled for theatrical release,” Tovbis said.

Another highlight is an evening celebrating Yiddish culture across artistic media. “We are starting out with ‘A Letter To Mother,’ which is a fabulous and also a really timely Polish film. It was filmed shortly before the Blitzkrieg and was the highest in this film in the American theaters a couple of weeks after the Blitzkrieg and it was the highest grossing Yiddish film in American theaters when it was released a couple of weeks after the Blitzkrieg. It is a really interesting historical document. The film itself, while it was shot then, takes place shortly before World War I and talks a lot about Jewish displacement for economic reasons from Europe to America and there’s a lot of relevance to the current refugee crisis.” The film will be followed by a live performance of Yiddish songs from a Dutch band called Nikitov.

Tovbis says, “I think one film that could fly under the radar is ‘People That Are Not Me,’ which is filmed by an Israeli woman named Hadas Ben Aroya who is really the entire force behind the film.” He compares it to critically acclaimed independent films like “Frances Ha” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” “It is very current, part of a new Israeli cinema of a kind don’t think I’ve seen come out of that country before, very sexually forward feminist, sort of wears its beliefs on its sleeve. It is not apologetic, it’s not tidy, it has this kind of really interesting take on modern romance or lack thereof or trying to find meaning for someone in their 20s or 30s but is very innovative in the way it’s shot. So I’m really excited about her as a new voice.”

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Interview: Rama Burshtein on “The Wedding Plan”

Posted on May 10, 2017 at 8:00 am

Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”) is an observant Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, but she reminds me in our interview that for more than half of her life, she was a secular Jew living in America. “I’m 50 years old. I became religious when I was 27 years old and still have lived more years secular than religious, still am. All my memories, all of who I am, this was not in a religious world.” That is an important part of what makes it possible for her to work with actors and crew who have different levels of religious observance and to relate to the audience for her films as well. While her new film, “The Wedding Plan,” like her first one concerns a young woman’s decision about who she will marry. But “Fill the Void” was set in a deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, while “The Wedding Plan” characters, like Burshtein herself, are those who have chosen a more observant life as adults. So we see more variation in their practice, some uncertainty and inconsistency but more of a sense of intentionality.

The central character is Michel, played by Noa Koler in an award-winning performance of stunning intelligence and sensitivity in her first lead role. “This character is very, very complicated because she is supposed to make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it’s very complicated for any actress and… So it’s like you can’t discover anyone at that age so good but it’s not true, because Noa, she’s an actress in Israel, she played in the theatre. Everyone knows that she is talented. Nobody gave her a leading role. Ever. At the age of 35. And she’s like a genius. She is extremely talented, It’s like, I’m telling you there is no way to compare anything that she does in an audition than to other very professional actresses–good actresses. She has something that few people have in the world.” Burshtein said one of her most important roles as a director was to show Koler that she had confidence in her. “When I believed a hundred in her then she believed a hundred. But if I believed eighty, she would believe zero. Everyone around me didn’t think I’m doing right. Everyone was trying to convince me not to take her. Everyone knows that she is talented. People didn’t think that she could handle a role where all those nice guys want her. She is like the neighbour’s daughter, she’s not not Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill.’ You have to believe that Oz Zehavi, the guy that plays Yos, who is like a big star in Israel, that he would go for her. But I know that at the end when someone is so sincere and like the model of truth, this is what you fall in love with at the end. Even a rock star, that what you fall in love with, you don’t fall in love with a pretty face. We don’t fall in love with a pretty face, that was part of me saying that because today nobody is even asking that question. Nobody thinks that it’s unreal that he wants her.” Making that believable is very important because it helps Michal truly understand that she is lovable. “It’s like ‘La La Land,’ says Burshtein. “She brings this thing out and it suddenly all the actions are opened. She believes that the sky is the limit. It’s an energy shows in her and that brings a lot in.”

In Israel and Europe, the film was called “Through the Wall.” Burshtein says, “It’s not ‘Behind the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Breaking the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Climbing the Wall,’ it’s ‘Through the Wall,’ which is something that you cannot actually do you know. A wall is a wall. You can’t go through it unless you have a door. But that’s what she is doing. She’s going through a wall.

Burshtein wants to deliver a message with this endearing romantic comedy premise of a young woman who hires a hall for the date of her wedding even though she does not have a groom. “There is a thing that I call ‘the imaginary option,’ It’s like you always think that there is someone a little bit better than what you will have sitting in front of you. You do not see what is in front of you because you have a picture of something else. From my research, the women that can fall in love with everyone are married.” She points out that when asked why she wants to be married, Michel gives almost every possible answer except for the most important one: to love. “I would sit with a girl and ask ‘What are you looking for?’ and she’s going to give me that list. And the whole list, which is very interesting, would be what he could give her. I never had girls writing down ‘I feel like I want I want to give. I want someone that I want to do for.'”

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