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PITTSBURGH JEWISH ISRAELI FILM FEST

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Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival
The 10th annual Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival runs through March 16. Tickets are $7.50, $6.50 for seniors and students; group rates and multi-film discounts are available. Films screen at the Loews Waterfront, in Homestead, and the Regent Square Theater, in Edgewood. Call 412-992-5203 for ticket info, or see www.pjiff.net.

Following are reviews of the final week's films.

Unfair Competition
Roman lesions

Writer: HARRY KLOMAN

When Pietro goes with his Grandpa to meet the Count Treuberg, a jaunty old clockmaker whose serviceable place of business is literally a hole in the wall, Grandpa says that his old friend once had a grand shop in his homeland before he moved to Rome. The boy wants to know who destroyed that wonderful place, and the Count begins to tell them. But Grandpa stops the story, satisfied just to call them "savage beasts." The Count jumps in with a wry defense: "Let's not," he says, "insult the animal kingdom."

We don't need to be told where the Count came from, or why he left. For this is 1938 Italy, and Pietro has already talked about Il Duce like he's a Dutch uncle. His casual visit to the Count, 25 minutes into Unfair Competition (Concorrenza sleale), is the first hint from writer/director Ettore Scola (A Special Day) that his leisurely slice of Italian life will eventually turn into something more.

Unfair Competition revolves around the extended family of Pietro, a bright little boy (and unwitting historian) who writes and draws in a notebook, and who observes the adult world with a bittersweet whimsy. His bombastic father, Umberto, owns a fine clothing shop. His mother reads books, his brother Paolo studies philosophy and spoons with the girl next door, his erudite Uncle Angelo (Gérard Depardieu, dubbed in Italian) is a perfectionist schoolteacher, and his blithe Uncle Peppito likes to dance. Life is sweet enough for the clan until Peppito commits a familial sin: He buys a pair of pants from Leone, a haberdasher and neighbor whose competing shop undercuts Umberto's and piggybacks on his promotional ideas.

Of course, this rivalry leads to a brawl, which spills out onto the sidewalk, where everyone gathers around to pull the men apart. That's when Papa's temper introduces Pietro to his country's future. "A Jew's always a Jew," Umberto says, with Pietro by his side. Leone's bespectacled little boy -- who's Pietro's best friend -- hears it, too.

We all know what happens next. Slowly at first, boldly soon enough (after Hitler visits Italy), an insidious anti-Semitism begins to spread. With storm clouds groaning outside, an embarrassed Umberto refuses to admit to the police that he's "more Italian" than his Jewish friend and rival, with whom he later reconciles when Leone takes to his bed. And Paolo's girlfriend is Leone's daughter, adding a touch of classical R&J to the tangled tale.

In the cafés and on the cobblestone streets of Unfair Competition, Scola seems to suggest that the Italian people didn't share their imprudent leader's taste for the German solution. But neither did they oppose it, and when Pietro asks his mother why, she can only tell him: "In life, bad things sometimes happen. Luckily we're Catholic." It's a statement as plain and simple as anything in Scola's muted contemplation of Italy's historic crossroads. In Italian, with subtitles. 7:15 p.m. Sat., March 15 (Loews), and 1 p.m. Sun., March 16 (Regent Square) * * 1/2

THE POSTWOMAN. With a pop radio station as her muse, a shy, middle-aged postwoman goes after love the only way she knows how: by stealing it. Smitten with a gentleman on her route, Luna swipes his mail and poses as his lonely-hearts pen pal, but even then she can't work up the confidence to face him. Director Dina Zvi Riklis pushes one's patience with Luna's diffidence almost to the breaking point, but overall this is a pleasant if slight 50-minute film, which appears to have been originally made for Israeli television. In Hebrew, with subtitles. To be screened by video projection. 9:15 p.m. Sat., March 15, and 4 p.m. Sun., March 16. (The film's co-star, Moshe Ivgy, will attend the screenings). Loews (Bill O'Driscoll) * * 1/2

On the Front Line
G.I. JEWS

Writer: HARRY KLOMAN

You don't need much of an imagination to understand the trauma that the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, triggered in his precarious nation, which has been at war, sometimes against four or five nations at once, since its creation in 1948.

But Chanoch Zeevi's documentary On the Front Line brings to light something we in the West might not understand: Rabin's murder, committed by Zionists who opposed his conciliatory policies with Arafat, vividly brought home the reality that simply calling something a "Jewish state" doesn't mean that everyone agrees on the definition of either of those words.

So in response to Rabin's death, Israel created a program that allows 18-year-olds to spend a year doing public service before entering the military (required for men, permitted for women). The kids in the program come from the Left and the Right, from religious homes and secular ones, from cities and settlements, uniting with the hope that these one-to-one connections can help salve their differences of ideology and faith

This concept seems almost too schmaltzy to work, and while On the Front Line is propaganda just as you'd expect, with a subtly pro-settlement slant, it's kinder, gentler propaganda in service to a worthy cause. Its young people are naturally quite bright and well-informed -- one can hardly afford not to be in a society under siege -- and it has plenty of applause lines when someone learns to understand the Other, like when a nonreligious lad says of his new religious friend, "I thought only ignorant fools believed in God."

The jury's still out on that one, but it's the sentiment that counts. On the Front Line is an interesting look at life behind the headlines in Israel, and the kids we follow arrive at their place of learning just as another Intifada begins, so they have to reassure their parents on the phone that they're safe inside from the gunfire on TV. They take classes, play guitar and Ping-Pong, fight poverty (yes, poverty) and street gangs, debate politics and religion. The Leftists tend to talk about democracy, the Rightists about staying put in the settlements. Says one liberal boy, with an endearingly sage innocence, "If there were a simple and just solution, they would have done it long ago."

On the Front Line begins with our future heroes packing their bags and leaving home. One Libyan-born recruit with a shaved head (so you know he's not religious) packs a book on Sephardic Jews that he's reading, then he hugs his mother, who cries. It's a moment not unlike check-in day for any American college freshman (my mom waited until she and my dad drove away to cry), except that when I left home at 18, it was to find a place in the world, and when an Israeli does it, it's to go to war. So we don't exactly know why this boy's mother is crying, although it doesn't take much imagination to guess. In Hebrew, with subtitles. To be screened by video projection. 11 a.m. Sun., March 16, only (followed by panel discussion). Regent Square * * *

MOMENTS. The shadow of suicide bombings hangs like a pall over this compilation of wildly diverse three-minute films and videos by 17 Israeli filmmakers, a project of the Jerusalem Film Festival intended to show what it's like living in Israel and the occupied territories just now. In one artily solemn piece, potential bombing victims recite the details of their fate as though it's already happened; in another; 6-year-old Arab kids are quizzed about such attacks; and Mouth of the Abyss reveals Israeli talk radio to be at least as vituperative as its American counterpart. Also: a poetic evocation of the first day of winter in Tel Aviv; the story of an Israeli military refusenik and his wife; and the question of whether everyday citizens would voluntarily fellate selected world leaders to help facilitate the whole peace thing. In Security Groove, the sounds of searchability (slamming automobile trunks, etc.) puckishly punctuate a dance beat, but this collection thrives on contrasts: Saturday in Jenin reveals a town of people reduced to trash-picking in the rubble, a village cast as a petri dish for fundamentalist rage. In Hebrew and Arabic, with subtitles. To be screened by video projection. 7 p.m. Sun., March 16, only (with a discussion to follow). Loews (BO) * * *

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