This year marks the 12th installment of the Rochester Jewish Film Festival and the first under the guidance of JCC cultural director Lori Michlin Harter. She and her tireless team have gathered together some of the planet's best contemporary cinema — 23 features this time, both narrative and documentary — about the Jewish experience. Read on for a preview detailing a handful of selections from this year's festival, then visit rjff.org or call 461-2000 for more information.
We're not sure why the plane-crash survivor wearing a tattered concentration-camp uniform would bother to rescue the injured Nazi officer. Then Austrian director Wolfgang Murnberger's engrossing thriller "My Best Enemy" quickly transports us back in time to pre-WWII Vienna to illustrate the longstanding friendship between Jewish art gallery scion Victor Kaufmann (Moritz Bleibtreu, Lola's boyfriend in 1998's "Run Lola Run") and housekeeper's son Rudi Smekal (Georg Friedrich). But their class disparity flips with Hitler's rise to power, and soon Rudi is using his insider knowledge about a rare Michelangelo sketch to sell out the Kaufmann family and boost his standing within the art-mad Third Reich. There's a girl, of course, but the twisty film, despite its unambiguous vision of good and evil, remains surprisingly unpredictable. (Monday, July 9, 8 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
One of Israel's top pop singers in the 1970's, Svika Pick is enough of an icon in that country to have sparked a "Mamma Mia"-type musical based on his songs. "Yossi and Jagger" director Eytan Fox's "Mary Lou," originally a four-part series on Israeli television, is narrated by Meir (Ido Rosenberg), a young man whose glamorous, loving mom abruptly walked out when he was 10 years old. After graduation Meir is a bit lost, though he soon finds a surrogate family in a gaggle of Tel Aviv drag queens. His missing mother provides Meir with the inspiration to take the stage himself and perform the songs of her beloved idol, Pick. Yet while the tunes seem unbelievably cheesy (perhaps something was lost in the translation?) and the acting ranges from awful to awesome, "Mary Lou" is an enjoyably frothy confection about finding your own voice. (Saturday, July 14, 9 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
The estranged "Brothers" in this Swiss production are Dan (Micha Celektar), shepherd on an Israeli kibbutz, and Aharon (Baruch Brener), Torah scholar and New York City lawyer (and sometime quoter of "noted thinker Woody Allen"). Aharon is in Jerusalem to defend the exemption of yeshiva students from military service and reconnect with Dan, who resents Aharon's 25-year absence from his life. Director Igaal Niddam's ambitious film attempts to combine the drama of familial discord with a courtroom piece exploring the hot-button issue of the separation of church and state, and, unfortunately, Niddam relies upon some ill-advised melodrama to force the various resolutions. Still, the script's wisdom remains undimmed, and the performances, especially from real-life rabbi Brener, shine. (Sunday, July 15, 1 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
A wildly broad comedy with a gooey center of redemption, David Zucker's directing debut "The Yankles" stars Brian Wimmer (you may remember him from the late 80's series "China Beach") as Charlie Jones, a bitter ex-ballplayer whose alcohol-fueled descent leads to some community service. And in one of those only-in-the-movies coincidences, Charlie's former girlfriend's brother needs a coach for his yeshiva college's new baseball team. Cornball jokes abound and a few characters lack any real depth, but anyone who appreciates the sports flick genre will recognize this one: ragtag group of mostly non-athletic misfits (now with tzitzits and yarmulkes) finds unity and pride in America's pastime, while their initially annoyed coach learns about selflessness and the freedom of an open mind. Oh, and Ralph Malph is in it! (Sunday, July 15, 5 p.m., Dryden Theatre)
RJFF 2012 closes with "Free Men," a French spy drama inspired by the true story of Muslim Resistance fighters who sheltered Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris. The magnetic Tahar Rahim (from 2009's stunning "A Prophet") plays Younes, a black-marketeering Algerian whose plans "to make my pile and go home" are derailed by legal trouble. Rather than jail, Younes opts for the hide-saving option of infiltrating a mosque suspected of aiding Jews in flight. The mosque's director appears to be in bed with the Germans, but he's played by the wily Michael Lonsdale (2010's acclaimed "Of Gods and Men"), so we suspect all may not be not what it seems. Moroccan filmmaker Ismaël Ferroukhi weaves nail-biting close calls through an absorbing testament to those who refused to look the other way. (Monday, July 16, 7 p.m., Dryden Theatre)