There are reasons for events like the Jewish film festival – and other festivals that celebrate and explore identities and cultures. One side of the equation is that mainstream films ignore things that make human beings distinct and interesting. But people want – and need – to see themselves and their ways of life taken seriously on screen. Another side of the equation is that it’s fascinating to see how other people live and think – and also to realize that human beings are the same in a lot of ways.
Maybe the best thing in Isaac Cherem’s Leona is that the lively young woman at the center of the picture walks out on the boyfriend she doesn’t like so much because he texts during a movie. Ariela (Naian González Norvind) has good sense, but it takes most of the film before she acts on it. The guy is also dumb enough to tell her she should not paint murals on the street, which she loves, and he talks to her parents about getting married before he talks to her.
Leona, which means lioness, takes place mostly among prosperous Jews in Mexico City. The film pictures Ariela’s society as blunt, manipulative and intolerant of outsiders, and when Ariela takes up with Ivan, who is not Jewish, her mother kicks her out, and a bunch of counselors, rabbis and others are marched in to persuade her of the error of her ways.
In her struggle to be independent, Ariela is an interesting character, and overall Leona is a good enough movie. It opens a door on a society Americans don’t get to see, and a Mexican take on the huge question of Jewish assimilation, but Leona can also be a clumsy piece of work. It doesn’t use locations well, and young director Cherem, who wrote the film with his lead actress, tends to miss the drama in his scenes. But it’s still a film worth watching.
On the other hand, the Hungarian movie Those Who Remained is completely up to its task. Like a lot of films from middle Europe, Those Who Remained jumps right into fundamental questions of human life. A volatile girl of 16 confronts her gynecologist with the question of why he lives, and he says, in a measured wearied voice that it’s a question with no answer.
The situation takes place not long after the end of World War II. Both the girl and the doctor never got out of Nazi-controlled Hungary and are left to figure out their lives on their own. The girl’s late puberty is a metaphor for stunted lives. The doctor has his concentration camp tattoo on his forearm, an image that still shivers the souls of older Jews.
Klara and Aldo form the kind of relationship that probably only comes after unspeakable trauma. People talk around things too hard to say openly. Klara wants to live with him, and Aldo reassures her great aunt – her only relative – that it’s OK that he’s not in THAT category anymore, whatever that means. The first night at Aldo’s apartment, Klara tiptoes into his bed, and very gently he gets up to bring her a pillow. There’s no standard, no normal for them. They do not have sex in any form – but people so damaged and needy must improvise and re-invent relationships and manners.
The film’s deep sadness comes in layers. Klara holds onto her fantasy that her parents are alive somewhere. Aldo leaves her with his family photo albums – pictures of his wife and child who are certainly dead. Aldo himself can’t look at the albums, and after a time, Klara turns away weeping. But life continues, although any change is another trauma. Communism has taken over, and then Stalin dies.
Those Who Remained gets to you. And so, do others in this year’s Jewish Film Festival.
The 24th Denver Jewish Film Festival takes place Feb. 5-12.