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The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival returns this week, for its first fully in-person festival since before the pandemic. Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History is now the main location, at least for the opening and closing films, although other local venues are utilized for this year's festival.
This year's festival features films from around the world. Here are three of the most notable ones, two from Israel and one from France.
This year's festival started off with a bang thanks to opening night film Karaoke. This Israeli film, which has appeared at other Jewish film festivals, as well as Tribeca, was directed by Moshe Rosenthal, and it finds a fascinating story to tell about an ordinary couple.
That couple (Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun) are empty-nesters living in an upscale apartment complex, apparently in the Tel Aviv suburbs. They live a relatively bored existence—he's quiet, she's a thwarted free spirit—but it's upended when a charismatic playboy named Itzik (Lior Ashkenazi) moves into the building's penthouse.
Wealthy, charming, and hosting frequent raucous karaoke nights (hence the title), Itzik makes a huge difference in the lives of the couple, both individually and together. But things aren't all happy, as we soon learn about the longtime regrets of all three people.
Gabay is likely a familiar face to the typical Jewish film festival attendee. He's in the cast of TV series Shtisel, but has actually been acting since the 1970s, appearing in such films as Rambo III and Not Without My Daughter. He later starred in The Band's Visit, reprising his role in its Broadway adaptation, and also in a touring production that visited Philadelphia a few years ago. He gives a quietly heartbreaking performance here, as a man with a life full of regret. Ashkenazi, too, is a veteran of the sort of Israeli films that get shown in the US.
But it's Shukrun who ultimately walks away with the picture, as a wife who's been waiting a really, really long time to have a chance to dance.
A Radiant Girl
The middle of the festival saw the PJFF showing of A Radiant Girl, a French directorial debut from director Sandrine Kiberlain, previously better known as an actor and singer. It's the story, essentially, of a Jewish theater girl in Nazi-occupied France, in 1942.
Rebecca Marder is Irene, a 19-year-old who stars in a production of Marivaux's L'Épreuve and tries to manage her romantic interests. Meanwhile, the Nazis are slowly encroaching on her ambitious life.
A Cannes Film Festival Critics Week debut earlier this year, A Radiant Girl might sound from the plot description like a French version of Cabaret, although it doesn't quite deliver the same emotional punch as that musical from 50 years ago.
Even so, Marder is wonderful, despite being almost a decade older than her character.
The closing night film of the festival, set for this Saturday, is another Israeli picture, although it's named for a different country. Directed by Ofir Raul Graizer, whose 2017 film The Cakemaker made the successful jump from the Jewish film festival circuit to art houses.
America has a chance to make a similar leap. This emotionally satisfying film is something of an untraditional love triangle. Eli (Michael Moshonov) is a swimming coach who lives in Chicago and returns to his native Israel to settle the affairs of his recently deceased father.
There, he reconnects with an old friend named Yotam (Ofri Biterman), with whom he used to swim, who lives with his Ethiopian Israeli fiancée Iris (Oshrat Ingadashet), a florist. When tragedy strikes, and lands Yotam in a coma, the other two become close.
It's a visually gorgeous picture, and the flower shop in particular is a wonderful feat of production design. But the relationships between the characters, in all three different combinations, are the film's most compelling element.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. November 12-19, 2022, primarily at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East, Philadelphia. (215) 545-4400 or phillyjfm.org.
The Weitzman recommends masks inside the museum, and requires them inside its theater.
The Weitzman is a wheelchair-accessible venue with assisted listening devices available in the theater.
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