If the aromas of knishes, latkes, holishkes and tzimmes are wafting from the Enzian Theater's kitchen, you know it's time once again for the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival. In addition to feasting on those culinary delicacies, attendees of the 18th annual event, which runs Saturday night through Monday night, Nov. 12-14, will be gorging on five features and one short film, all themed to Jewish culture.
"This year we previewed about 60 narrative and doc features in total, plus an additional dozen shorts," says Enzian programming director Matthew Curtis. "The process begins in early June and takes us to late September. The selection committee consists of myself, Enzian programming coordinator Tim Anderson and a small committee of dedicated and passionate volunteers and film lovers from the Roth Family Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando. ... We try to put together the best and most diverse program possible."
First up is Fanny's Journey (three stars), at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Orlando Science Center. (It's the only film of the five not screening at the Enzian.) Based on real events, the third feature from French director Lola Doillon is the tale of Jewish children sent by their parents to a French boarding school during World War II. When their safe haven is exposed, they must flee to Switzerland. And after adults are forced to abandon them, the burden of leadership falls upon 13-year-old Fanny.
"Don't ever show your fear," the children's caretaker (the excellent Cécile De France) tells Fanny. "You're a hard-head. That's a good thing. That's why you'll survive."
The film offers few surprises, pulls some emotional punches and shies away from true horror. Still, expressive performances from most of the children (especially Léonie Souchaud as Fanny), poetic cinematography and moments of genuine emotion and heartbreak – not to mention relevance to the current Syrian refugee tragedy – make the film a fitting festival kick-off.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine (two stars) screens next, at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Enzian (the location for all remaining films). It's a worthy attempt to define Israel's diverse cuisine and will leave your mouth watering, unless you're a vegetarian, but the documentary reminds one of a wonderful tourist destination where, regrettably, you've booked the wrong guide.
"It's about tasting new things and talking about history," says Michael Solomonov, an American-Israeli chef who ushers us along on our foodie journey. His description is spot-on, and the movie does a good job of examining the nation's history through its underappreciated comestible culture. But it meanders into mediocrity too often thanks to bland interviews and Solomonov's bad on-camera persona, poor voice-over, lame attempts at humor and repeated interjections of "awesome."
You certainly will learn about Israeli food, but writer-director Roger Sherman should have made a Food Network miniseries instead of a big-screen offering. There's a lot to feast on, but his table is not properly set.
This feature is nicely complemented by Bagels in the Blood, about Irwin Shlafman, a third-generation bagel maker in Montreal. The short doc elicits an odd nostalgia, even a strange melancholy, as if Shlafman is resigned to his destiny. We don't learn much about bagels, but we do learn about family business, tradition and commitment to quality.
Moos (two stars), playing at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday, proves a nice balance to the rest of the festival by virtue of its genre (romantic dramedy), but despite some sweetness and the best of intentions, it never rises above its lightweight, made-for-TV feel. Revolving around its title character, an unassuming and underachieving young Jewish woman from Amsterdam, this Dutch-language production fails to build enough emotion, humor or narrative clarity to balance its bungled third act. Sure, we can all relate to Moos' dream of attending theater school, her rekindled (yet slightly awkward) friendship with her childhood friend Sam and her feelings of inadequacy, but a good performance by Jip Smit, as Moos, cannot erase the lack of character development and uninspired editing.
Monday starts off strongly at 4:30 p.m. with Aida's Secrets (three stars), an emotional journey of self-discovery that encompasses post-Holocaust mysteries, familial reunions and genuine suspense spanning 70 years and three continents.
Izak, born in Europe under mysterious circumstances following World War II and now living in Israel, has never known the full facts about his mother (Aida) or father. He longs for answers, but truth is often more complicated than fiction, and, indeed, this documentary is twistier than the festival's fiction films. While the first half is both riveting and revelatory, the second gets slightly bogged down in familial minutiae and struggles to be both a personal drama and an examination of the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp. Nevertheless, the characters' quest for identity and self-worth is eternal and makes for powerful, if imperfect, cinema.
Wrapping up the festival at 7 p.m. on Monday is The Women's Balcony (three stars). It might not be the strongest of the five features, but it's the most fitting, as the Hebrew-language film exposes the heart of Judaism by examining the role women play in the religion.
After the women's balcony in a Jerusalem synagogue collapses, the congregation must decide how quickly to rebuild and, by doing so, just how much it values its female members. Complicating matters are the orthodox views of the new rabbi and one woman's attempts to challenge those views.
"God gave us minds of our own, too," she tells the rabbi. "We don't always have to follow the most stringent laws. ... Is that what a rabbi's supposed to do? Enter a community of good people and fill them with fear?"
Despite the weighty subject, the film is half-comedy and half-drama, and it cleverly balances the two genres. First-time director Emil Ben-Shimon is less successful, however, at juggling the film's many characters and slightly jumbled storylines. Robert Altman, he is not. Still, the film weaves a rich tapestry, intertwining themes of friendship, tradition, faith and family.
A single film costs $11, a Series Pass is $50, and a $75 Mensch Pass provides priority access to everything. For more information, visit enzian.org.