Ach, the Portland Jewish Film Festival. We've called it the least necessary of the film festivals—since the early 20th century, Jews haven't exactly been underrepresented in cinema, and they've made immeasurable contributions to film—but like gefilte fish at Passover or that nosy aunt who won't stop asking when you're going to get married and start making lots of little Jewish babies, it just keeps coming back. With this quality of films, though, we're not kvetching. As the 22-year-old fest enters its second week, here are three picks. (Also check out the review of Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon on this page—it plays Wednesday, June 18, as part of the festival before opening Friday at Living Room Theaters.)
Grade: B Filipinos compose one of the biggest groups of foreign workers in Israel, and they're the subject of Hannah Espia's debut feature. It's a low-key, patient film that manages an impressively calm tone for such potentially incendiary subject matter—at issue, for example, is whether a 4-year-old, Israeli-born boy will be deported. Transit follows the linked stories of five Filipinos in Tel Aviv, and it builds the most steam when addressing the relationships between the parents and their third-culture kids, who were born in Israel, speak only Hebrew and, as one mother resentfully points out, don't know how to make adobo. While a pervasive sense of paranoia percolates, it's the tender moments—as when the 4-year-old tucks his overworked father into bed—that really stick. REBECCA JACOBSON. 9 pm Wednesday, June 18.
The Jewish Cardinal
Grade: A- Despite its sensational subject matter, The Jewish Cardinal is pretty much a by-the-numbers biopic. But if it doesn't surprise, it certainly captivates. It's based on the life of Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Frenchman of Ashkenazi descent who converted to Catholicism, rose through the church and ultimately became adviser to John Paul II, though he always insisted that he remained at heart a Jew. Laurent Lucas owns the title role, fiercely committed even as the character's short temper renders him less than lovable. Director Ilan Duran Cohen does little to glorify his protagonist, staying out of Lustiger's head and keeping the priest's innermost conflicts a mystery. But this distance is for the best: By staying faithful to its source and avoiding assumptions, the film affirms that Lustiger's story needs no adornment. TREE PALMEDO. 7 pm Thursday, June 19.
Grade: B+ For most of its first third, Hunting Elephants—an Israeli production directed and co-written by Reshef Levi—plays it straight enough to pass as serious drama. In the course of 30 minutes, young protagonist Yonatan (Gil Blank) watches the death of his father, gets beat up at school and scowls as his broke mother seduces his father's creepy boss. He ends up in the care of his grandfather Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai), a former freedom fighter who lives in a nursing home with his comatose wife and near-blind buddy, Nick (Moni Moshonov). Things are looking bleak—until Patrick Stewart shows up as a cheapskate caricature of himself, they all decide to rob a bank, and Hunting Elephants drops all the weighty stuff to become a good old-fashioned heist film. But the biggest surprise is that the goofy bank-robbery plot is actually more inventive than the drama that came before, offering several legitimate laughs and a few fresh twists. TREE PALMEDO. 8 pm Saturday, June 21.
SEE IT: The Jewish Film Festival is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. Through June 29.