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PITTSBURGH JEWISH ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL

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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 second week's films.

GIRAFFES. Yet another movie about a group of young people whose lives intersect in disturbing, sexy, darkly humorous and seemingly random ways. Three women's paths are changed permanently when two of them take the wrong rides one night; the third, an artist named Efrat, ends up implicated in the death of a cabbie, goes into hiding and launches a guerrilla art project. Dafna, an actress, sleeps with Efrat's would-have-been blind date Avner -- who's also the lawyer counseling Efrat at the behest of Abigail, a reporter who turns Efrat's story into an anonymous cause celebre ... not forgetting Avner's pal Danny, the tenacious cop who's investigating the cabbie's death. Writer and director Tzahi Grad pummels us a bit with the randomness theme, and a closing "twist" feels both unnecessary and a bit of a cheat. On the other hand, Grad deftly shifts between dramatic intensity and punches of humor. And with its nervous plot and jarring sound edits, the whole film bobs compellingly enough along on the undercurrents of sadness, mistrust and uncertain identities that seem to rule its characters' lives. In Hebrew and French, with subtitles. 9:15 p.m. Sat., March 8, and 4 p.m. Sun., March 9. Loews (Bill O'Driscoll) * * 1/2

STRANGE FRUIT. "Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root ..." Filmmaker Joel Katz explores the history and significance of the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939, and which -- despite a radio ban -- might have been the first protest song to chart nationally. The hour-long documentary traces the tune's origins in the era's social ferment as well as its wake of controversy: Composer Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan), was a leftie Jewish high school English teacher who was investigated as a Communist just for writing it. With a conservative, talking-heads-and-archival-footage approach, Katz demonstrates that Meeropol was intriguing; his adopted sons, for instance, were the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as Cold War spies. Still, all you really need to know about "Strange Fruit" can be found in a 1958 kinescope of Holiday, who first lies about its composition (saying it was written for her) and then delivers a bone-chilling rendition that fully explains its lasting power. To be screened by video projection. 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 6. Loews. (BO) * * *

PURITY. A brooding, hour-long documentary about four Israeli women's relationship to the ancient Jewish laws of niddah, which dictate standards for family purity. Central to these laws is the miqveh, a ritual immersion to symbolically cleanse the impurity of menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth. Besides filming herself, filmmaker Anat Zuria documents small slices of the lives of three women -- one recently divorced, one about to marry, and one middle-aged and happily married -- as they question the miqveh, but still ultimately submit to it. While the film sometimes resorts to documentary conventions like the sit-down interview, many scenes are cinematically constructed and evocative, such as when subjects are carefully inspected for cleanliness by bossy miqveh matrons. Zuria's choice to largely forgo a connecting -- or even explanatory -- narrative successfully conveys the women's ambivalence. But it's a complexity that's merely suggested, not full explored: Vast themes such as tradition vs. modernity, the role of women, the structure of marriage, and the power of taboo are simply skimmed. I wanted my immersion in this movie to be more deeply emotional and intellectual, which could have perhaps been achieved with a more complete biography of each woman -- occupation, politics, personal spirituality, family history, class -- and a more detailed cultural history of these rituals. In Hebrew with subtitles. To be screened by video projection. 11 a.m. Sun., March 9 (women-only screening at Regent Square), and 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 13 (open to all at Loews). Panel discussions will follow both screenings. (Julie Mickens) * * 1/2

RUTHIE AND CONNIE: EVERY ROOM IN THE HOUSE. In 1959 Ruthie Berman and Connie Kurtz, both young moms, become friends. They're raising their families in the same Brooklyn apartment complex and belong to the same synagogue -- ostensibly conventional middle-class women who'd blend right in on vacation in the Catskills. But eventually they fall in love, and in 1974 they finally leave their families to move into an apartment together. For the sake of appearances and their own shame, they put ceramic "Ruth's Room" and "Connie's Room" plaques on the two bedroom doors, even though one of those beds is never slept in. The couple, now feisty retirees and social activists celebrating 25 years together, pull these long-unhung signs out of a box and suggest that, at a "commitment ceremony" they're planning at their gay-friendly temple, they should step on these signs and smash them, just as grooms step on glasses during the Jewish wedding ceremony. It's not the only thing to be smashed in Deborah Dickson's remarkable and moving documentary, which has a habit of shattering your assumptions about what it means to be Jewish, to be lesbian, to be elderly and -- most of all -- to be madly in love. To be screened by video projection. 1 p.m. Sun., March 9, only. Regent Square. Panel discussion follows screening. (Andy Newman) * * * *

God Is Great and I'm Not
SO WHAT ELSE IS NEW?

Writer: HARRY KLOMAN

What kind of a guy meets a girl, follows her to church, takes her home to make love, and then, when she attempts suicide in his kitchen, still wants to go out with her? Meet François (Edouard Baer), who says he's "maybe" Jewish, and who teaches the girl to call it the Shoah, which means "genocide," and not the Holocaust, which means "sacrifice."

And what kind of a girl turns down a guy's offer for coffee because she has to "pray a little," and when he follows her to church, goes home with him, makes love, and attempts suicide in his kitchen? Meet Michèle (Audrey Tautou of Amélie), who converts to Buddhism after her suicide attempt, and then, when she learns the guy is "maybe" Jewish, begins reading Jewish for Beginners and buys him a mezuzah for his door.

That's the setup for Pascale Bailly's God Is Great and I'm Not (Dieu est grand, je suit toute petite), a French love story, with New Wave trappings, about the self-importance of young people and the very importance of self-awareness. Filmed with the bright palette of romantic comedy, and written in the breezy lingo of Hollywood pop psychology, it's vaguely charming and terribly sincere, with gentle performances by its two attractive stars.

Depending on your tolerance for obsession, Michèle's conversion to all things Jewish makes her either a sincere seeker or a lost soul. She stops taking buses on the Sabbath, and when she absent-mindedly lights her cigarette with a menorah, she begins a guilty recitation of the Chanukah miracle. (The only Old Testament value she doesn't embrace is that pesky Commandment about sex.) As a wandering Jew, François doesn't have much definition: He seems to be embarrassed by his roots, although we never know why. So this couple might as well be fighting over politics or money, considering how thinly the script explores their situation.

To give his movie some visual flare, Bailly uses quick dissolves to black the way a New Wave director uses jump cuts. He divides the story into mini-chapters, each one introduced by whimsical titles, hand-written on pieces of notebook paper that turn like a page. Michèle's earnest ex-boyfriend is played by Mathieu Demy, the son of New Wave icons Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy, and Michèle's best gal pal is Julie Depardieu, sister of Gerard.

God is Great is the second French movie in two years to problematize Jewish/Gentile romance -- the other was My Wife Is An Actress -- so maybe there's a new genre emerging here. It ends where you know it will, with the lovers blithely agreeing to live with each other's eccentricities. This is somewhat realistic when you're desperately in love, although in reality, Michèle's fixation is hardly as benign as Bailly finally allows. You know what's up when Ella Fitzgerald sings a jazzy big-band love song over the opening titles, and when Peggy Lee croons "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" over the closing crawl. God Is Great is strictly Hollywood or bust, executed with a dour French twist, and subtitles. 7:15 p.m. Sat., March 8, and 4 p.m. Sun., March 9. Loews * * 1/2



 

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