Lajos Koltai's Fateless, a Hungarian drama about the Holocaust, opens in 1944, without prologue, after the madness has begun: We meet going-on-15 Gyuri as he walks to his father's Budapest shop sporting a yellow star on his lapel. It's not there for decoration. His father wraps up a sale of some family jewelry and then prepares to go away into forced labor -- the Holocaust came late to Hungary --leaving Gyuri the de facto head of household. His father's customer tells the boy, "You won't have to wear that long. This outrage will be over soon."
In terms of Jewish history, he's right. Fateless takes its strength from the idea that despite millennia of persecution, the Jews must always survive, even if particular individuals don't. Before he goes away to a labor camp himself, Gyuri hears the lament of a teen-age friend who realizes that's she a Jew but doesn't understand what that means. What, she wants to know, makes people hate these "Jews" so much? There is, of course, no reasonable answer.
So it remains the fate of the Jewish people to endure these hardships -- because of past sins, one old man posits, before urging Gyuri to Hebrew prayer -- and it becomes the collective destiny of Jews never to give up hope, even if, as an individual, you feel like doing so.
Fateless tells this story methodically and episodically, without too many of the grand and horrifying moments we're accustomed to seeing in Holocaust films. As Gyuri moves from camp to camp, people certainly suffer and die. But Koltai, who based his film on an autobiographical novel by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, has made a lean and contemplative drama. In this way Fateless is a rather un-Hungarian film: not ironic, not satiric or bittersweet, and not metaphoric until the end. Koltai photographs it in what can at times barely be called color, with washed-out images of gray or muted brown that look like faded family photographs. Only the yellow seems to register.
There's a lot in Fateless that we've seen before, from the conversations among people who can't believe the rumors -- "The Germans are a cultured race," someone says, and an especially arrogant man believes they'll welcome his expertise -- to the talk in camps of the little things back home, like a familiar street, a library, or a woman. When desperation and degradation overtake him, Gyuri becomes a symbol of his people: He grows to look like the historic images we know, and he embraces his individual fate.
But he's saved by a friend in the camp who hasn't. And so begins the long climax of Fateless, an existential dirge of liberation and Gyuri's return home, where he quietly fuels himself with an insinuating hatred and, finally, an odd sort of happiness. Here we witness, briefly and compellingly, the psychology of having survived, and the fate of a boy who didn't expect to. In Hungarian, with subtitles.
7 p.m. Thu., March 23. SouthSide Works
The Pittsburgh-Jewish Israeli Film Festival
The 13th annual Pittsburgh-Jewish Israeli Film Festival continues its program of international and domestic films representing Jewish experiences. Films screen through Sun., April 2, at four area theaters: SouthSide Works, on the South Side (412-381-7335); the Galleria, in Mount Lebanon (1500 Washington Road, 412-531-5551); Cranberry 8 (Rte. 19, Cranberry, 724-772-3111); and the Carmike 15, in Greensburg (970 E. Pittsburgh St., 724-834-1190). Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for students. For tickets and more information, see www.pjiff.net or call 412-992-5203.
The second week's selections are as follows:
THE BARBECUE PEOPLE. Four members of a troubled family find a joint moment of clarity at a barbecue picnic celebrating the 40th anniversary of Israel's independence. But there's no simple path there as filmmakers David Ofek and Yossi Madmoni unfold several interwoven narratives, across nations and generations. This nonlinear approach yields some genuine surprises, and depicts how even ordinary lives are marked with extraordinary events whose significance may not be immediately apparent. This well-crafted drama, leavened with naturalistic humor, manages to logically incorporate such disparate aspects as kosher meats, Troma films, Arabic music, the 1948 war and the Iraqi Jewish experience. Only the circumstances of a murder feel inorganic. But the overall effect is satisfying, as the family's stories come together like the jumbled sides of a Rubik's cube twisted finally into an organized color scheme. In Hebrew, with subtitles. 9:30 p.m. Sat. April 1. SouthSide Works (Al Hoff)
CAMPFIRE. With its actors who look like real people, and who do comedy without seeming to yearn for a laugh track, this funny, moving drama feels like a throwback to a certain brand of 1970s American cinema about kids. Indeed, it's set in 1981, where teen-age Tammy faces her coming of age alongside a rebellious older sister and a widowed young mother who's intent on helping found a new settlement in the West Bank. Displaying a beautifully sure touch, writer-director Joseph Cedar juxtaposes Tammy's journey with a power struggle between the other two women in her family, as well as with her mother's bittersweet search for a new mate. Assuredly, Campfire has its left-leaning say about Israeli politics. But it's most rewarding for its fine storytelling, naturalistic feel and complex, contrary and sympathetic characters, well acted especially by Hani Furstenberg (as Tammy) and Michaela Eshet (as mom Rachel). In Hebrew, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 30. SouthSide Works (Bill O'Driscoll)
JERICHO'S ECHO: PUNK ROCK IN THE HOLY LAND. On the surface, this is just another film about punk music: Female musicians complain about the lack of women in the industry, band members espouse political beliefs, and, of course, mohawks abound. Filmmaker Liz Nord documents the emerging punk-music scene in Israel, but the music soon disappears into the background (literally) to make way for political discussion. Band members voice grievances about Israeli policies, their conflict with religion, and the futility of the war that surrounds them. By the end of this 70-minute film, the bands blend into one another as they rehash fairly similar views and play forgettable music. The subjects are more like talking heads than actual people, as the footage rarely shows what life for a young punk musician in Israel is really like. In English and Hebrew, with subtitles. () To be preceded by Ben Katz's short film "Stand at Ease," about a young Israeli man torn between his love of rock music and service in the army. In Hebrew, with subtitles. Both films to be screened via video projection. 4 p.m. Sun., March 26. SouthSide Works (Amanda Waltz)
LITTLE JERUSALEM. While this domestic drama is nominally about two Jewish sisters living in a mostly Jewish suburb of Paris, its real protagonists are faith and desire. Elder sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) is so devout as to be sexually repressed, only to discover that religion can't rein in the passions of her husband. Younger sister Laura (Fanny Valette) strives to be just as austere, taking refuge in philosophy and emulating the stoic restraint of her hero, Immanuel Kant. But when she is smitten with a young Algerian refugee, she discovers that faith in human reason, like faith in God, has its limits. Writer/director Karin Albou offers a largely predictable drama, one that revisits the well-established notion that faith constrains as well as consoles. The film's abrupt end suggests that, in a French society increasingly populated by immigrants, Western-style secular humanism may become as isolated, and as isolating, as the varying faiths of the country's newcomers. In French, Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles. 9:30 p.m. Sat., March 25. SouthSide Works (Chris Potter)
LIVE AND BECOME. During the 1984 famine, a young Ethiopian boy is rescued from a refugee camp when his mother passes him off as an orphan and a Falasha Jew in Radu Mihaileanu's drama (based in part on real events). He is adopted by a French Sephardic family in Tel Aviv, but his secret threatens to compromise his assimilation. In French, Hebrew and Amharic, with subtitles. 7 p.m. Wed., March 22. Carmike 15
ONLY HUMAN. A series of crises break out when Leni brings her new Palestinian boyfriend, Rafi, home to meet her Jewish family in this Spanish domestic farce directed by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri. Rafi may be from the wrong side of the fence, but Leni's family presents its own challenges: Dad's gone missing, Leni's brother is intent on imposing Orthodox order, and her blind Zionist granddad is toting his rifle around. The humor works best in the small setting of the apartment, where something as simple as a child's toy is hilariously disruptive. The story lags somewhat in the middle when the family journeys out on a bizarre errand, but a quick pace helps keep the film on its toes through to its inevitable, and affirming, conclusion. In Spanish, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Sat., March 25. SouthSide Works (AH)
THE RITCHIE BOYS. It is hard to imagine a World War II story that remains unplumbed, but here apparently is one: German Jews who fled Nazi Germany, only to march back in with the American army. Although some were still classified as enemy aliens by the U.S. government when they gathered at Camp Ritchie in rural Maryland, they trained eagerly for psychological warfare and intelligence work. They pretended to be Russian officers to interrogate captured German soldiers, and pretended to be Americans when captured themselves. The film, by German writer-director Christian Bauer, tracks these now-aged boys to their homes and follows them back to Camp Ritchie. They are obviously proud of helping drive the Nazis from their homeland, and why not? The archival war footage serves mostly as backdrop; it is the voices and faces of these old men, sometimes wry, sometimes sober, that best tells the still intriguing tales of the last best war. 7:30 p.m. Wed., March 29. SouthSide Works (Marty Levine)
39 POUNDS OF LOVE. Tel Aviv resident Ami Ankilewitz is 34 years, weighs a mere 39 pounds, and is paralyzed with muscular dystrophy (he can speak and move one finger). Yet, as Dani Menkin's documentary establishes, Ami's unflinching enthusiasm to participate questions what it means to be disabled. Reeling from a broken heart, Ami, with the filmmaker and some pals in tow, undertakes his life's dream: to tour the U.S., ride a Harley and confront the doctor who told his mother he wouldn't see his seventh birthday. For added value, Menkin incorporates one of Ami's computer-animated films, which remarkably Ami has created with his one functioning finger. The film's low production values, short running time and on-the-fly intimacy reminded me of a segment from a television news program, but one can't deny the inspirational power of Ami's will to live life to its fullest. A discussion with the film's producers, Daniel J. Chalfen and Asaf Shaul, will follow the 1 p.m. Sun., March 26, screening. In English and Hebrew, with subtitles. 1 p.m. Sun., March 26 (SouthSide Works), and 7:30 p.m. Mon., March 27 (Galleria) (AH)
UNTIL TOMORROW COMES. Three generations of women find their troubles entangled in this dramedy from David Deri. A middle-aged widow, Lillian, runs a wedding-dress business with her unhappily married daughter -- but the real tension is generated by Lillian's mother, who is aggressively sliding into dementia. Naturalistic performances (including those by real-life mother and daughter Remond and Yael Abeksiss) anchor the story, even if the ending feels a trifle pat. (AAb) To be preceded by Ilan Eshkoli's comic short film set in Jerusalem, "The Orthodox Way," in which a blind date is by turns confusing, dangerous and romantic. Both films in Hebrew, with subtitles. Both films to be screened via video projection. 7:30 p.m. Tue., March 28. SouthSide Works (AH)