Of all the annual cinematic celebrations of group identity, the Jewish film festival seems the least necessary. Call me self-loathing, but I do not think my ancestors have been underrepresented in Hollywood, and the days when studio bosses changed the names and hair of promising actors to keep them from seeming "too Jewish" are long passed. The upshot of this history is that a first-rate movie about Jewishness—from A Serious Man to Footnote—is likely to secure a mainstream release, or at least a slot in broader festivals. So the Portland Jewish Film Festival must content itself with the last dregs from the Manischewitz cup: movies so preoccupied with tradition that they never leave the roof.
Entering its second week, this 20th-anniversary festival occasionally ventures further afield, mostly in its repertory selections. (If I were seeing one picture here, I'd make it My Architect, the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary on brutalist builder Louis I. Kahn, who cantilevered three families. It screens at 4 pm Sunday, April 22.) But the lineup is heavily weighted toward the usual coming-of-age tales. Rare is the evening that passes without a bar mitzvah. Joel Fendelman's David (7 pm Thursday, April 19) varies up the formula by making its pint-sized hero a Muslim who tries to pal with the yeshiva boys; the film has the steady sympathy of dramatic vérité, but none of the ecumenical puckishness of Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews."
Friendships across the Fertile Crescent's religious divide are also central to The Rabbi's Cat (7 pm Friday and 8:30 pm Saturday, April 20-21), an Algerian cartoon by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux that in early scenes appears as some dire cross-species retread of All Dogs Go to Heaven, using many of the same drawing techniques. As soon as titular cat starts talking, it demands—you guessed it—a bar mitzvah. But while the animation never gets less crude, the story grows more sophisticated, turning into something closer in spirit to the Flashman books (or the Tintin comics, which it openly mocks). There's sex, scimitars, a blind-drunk Russian nobleman, scimitars in the nobleman, and a lost Jerusalem in central Africa. The feline is eventually jettisoned, which is for the best. There are no cats in Judaica.
SEE IT: The 20th Portland Jewish Film Festival continues through Monday, April 30, at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium. Visit nwfilm.org for complete showtimes.