May 11, 2012. European Jewish Cinema at the TJFF. Movies Reviewed: Simon and the Oaks, My Best Enemy, My Dad is Barishnikov, Let My People Go! PLUS Cabaret-Berlin

Posted in 1940s, 1980s, Austria, Berlin, comedy, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Family, Fighting, Judaism, Sex, Sweden, TJFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 11, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again, and this week I’m gong to talk about some of the new European movies now playing at TJFF, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. There are two historical dramas about best friends, one from Sweden, and one from Austria; and two very different light comedies, one, in Russian, about the Soviet Union in the 80’s, and another set in present-day Finland and France.

Simon and the Oaks
Dir: Lisa Ohlin
Based on the novel by Marrianne Fredriksson

It’s WWII in neutral Sweden, in Gothenburg. Two boys, Simon Larsson and Isak Lentov, become close friends at a private school: Isak fled Berlin as an infant with his terrified mother and bookseller dad; Simon lives with his parents outside the city. But when Mrs Lentov has a nervous breakdown (after Germany invades the rest of Scandinavia), Isak moves in with the Larssons.

The Larsson and Lentov families grow very close, with Simon leaning toward the Lentov father Ruben’s intellectual world and its joy of music, while Isak heads back to the land, using his hands to make things, as taught by the Larsson father, Erik. For Simon, music affects him in an unusual way: it unlocks memories of his childhood involving an old oak tree in his garden, and leads him to a secret letter his parents have never told him about.

Simon and the Oaks is a beautiful, novelistic story that follows the families over two decades as the boys come of age, the country’s mood changes, and the multifaceted relationships that develop within the extended families. This is a fascinating, character and plot-driven film that manages to convey Simon’s inner feelings visually, without resorting to explicit narration or explanation. All of the acting, including the actors playing the young and adult Simons and Isaks, and the story is compelling. I liked this movie a lot.

My Best Enemy
Dir: Wolfgang Murnberger

It’s 1938 in post Anschluss Vienna. Victor (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the son of a prominent art gallery owner and his lifelong best friend is Rudi (Georg Friedrich). Rudi was born into the family structure – he’s the son of the housekeeper – but outside Victor’s privileged status. But the tables are turned when Rudi becomes a Nazi, while Victor’s Jewish family loses its art and its home and is sent to concentration camps. But still missing is a reputed drawing by Michaelangelo, that may be part of their family art collection. High-ranking Nazis need it to appease their fascist Italian allies.

So Victor is temporarily released from the camp, so that Rudi can discover the location of the hidden work of art. But in a strange reversal, they end up swapping identities! It remains to be seen whether Victor can escape to Switzerland, and if Rudi will get his just desserts… And will that Michelangelo drawing ever be found?

Despite its setting, My Best Enemy is not a Holocaust movie at all – it’s more of a caper-style movie, set during WWII, about two former best friends, now rivals, and their long-term competition over art, love, status and power. It has lots of unexpected twists, but, because of the camera work and style of music it seems less cinematic, and more like a BBC mystery movie. That’s not criticism, per se – I love TV mysteries – just don’t expect a Haneke film.

My Dad is Barishnikov
Dir: Dimitry Povolotsky

Boris Michaelovich Fishkin is a horny, nerdy Soviet adolescent studying at a famous ballet school in the 80’s. He wants to be a great dancer, but he’s no Billy Eliot. He’s awkward, small, and clumsy, and the bigger kids bully and tease him relentlessly. So when his bleached-blonde single mom gives him a tape of the great Barishnikov – the Russian dancer who defected to the west – and drops hints that he may have been his missing father, Boris finds new confidence and inspiration. Soon all the school is whispering about their own little Barishnikov. His trademark pirouettes improve and his Bolshoi bows amuse the ballet experts. But in order to keep his status, he resorts to trading on the black market for luxuries like Levis and bananas. Will he be the next ballet superstar? Will he ever meet his dad? And will his name ever appear on a banner at the Bolshoi?

My Dad is Barishnikov is a cute, light Russian comedy – a coming-of-age memoir, just as the country itself was growing up. It’s filled with references to the era’s line-ups for meat, the cramped apartments, the underground economy, and the subservience to party hierarchy, stuff you don’t see often in movies. It also has great lines, like when the school disciplinarian pulls Boris out of the cafeteria and then announces: “Continue food consumption!”

Let My People Go!
Dir: Mikael Buch

Ruben (Nicolas Maury) is a postman who lives in a log cabin in a Finnish village with his blond boyfriend Teemu. Squeaky-voiced Ruben looks like a gay, French, Peewee Herman riding around on his bike. But one day, when he delivers a package filled with cash to an old man, it’s shoved back at him: “You take it — I don’t want it” and in the struggle, the guy drops dead, and Ruben’s left holding the 200 thousand Euros. But when he tries to explain it all to Teemu, they have a fight,  and Ruben flees home to France. There he’s forced to re-enter his French family life – a passive-oppressive mother (Almodovar’s great Carmen Maura), a milquetoast dad with a secret, a macho brother, and a self-centred sister, – a life he thought he’d escaped forever in his Finnish cabin in the woods.

This is a very funny, cute comedy contrasting a kooky, storybook Finland with the tangled and messed-up world of a French-Jewish family at Passover. It’s full of all sorts of offensively funny ethnic stereotypes played out for full effect.

And well worth seeing this weekend is Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene a marvelous and fast-moving cabaret documentary about Berlin in the 20’s, composed entirely of black and white movie clips, set to recorded German music from that era. You can catch all of these movies — including Simon and the Oaks, Let my People Go, My Best Enemy, and My Dad is Barishnikov — this weekend: go to www.tjff.com for details. Also playing is How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire (www.vodkaempire.ca) at the Bloor Cinema on Sunday at 4:30pm… complete with a vodka tasting! And starting next week is Inside-Out, Toronto’s LGBT Film Festival.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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