TORONTO — The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close, a sad time for me as it means a whole ‘nother year before I can dine on legitimate Canadian poutine. (Poutine, the national dish, is comprised of french fries, cheese curds, brown gravy and regret.)
This year 255 feature-length films curated from around the world (and many from other festivals) unspooled in the fair city on Lake Ontario. I was there for over a week and attended screenings from 8:30 ’til midnight, and still didn’t cross paths with many of my colleagues. More than any other international festival the volume of choices is completely overwhelming.
This is my way of explaining why there were so many important Jewish movies that I missed, like the Israeli films “Montana” and “Scaffold,” plus Jake Gyllenhaal’s much ballyhooed performance in “Stronger.”
Even with those gaps, this was a huge year for we Chosen people. And most of it good. First the big stuff:
Top of the list is “mother!” written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, which opened September 15. This is a major work of art and the type of thing that people either love or hate. Count me as one of the lovers. It stars Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence as a married couple in a large, isolated house that acts as a magnet for strange behavior. Things derail when two guests (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) appear, disturbing Bardem, a blocked-up but celebrated poet, and Lawrence, who is remodeling their home.
As things get weird (it has the tone of a horror film) you might start scratching your head trying to figure out what’s what. And then, eventually, it hits you. (STOP READING THIS IF YOU DON’T LIKE SPOILERS.) “mother!” isn’t just an allegorical film, it’s a re-telling of the Old and New Testaments, with a little hat tip to Greek mythology and Hinduism thrown in, too. The director of “Noah” essentially gets to do a mini-remake of his last movie (plus a prequel and sequel), only you don’t realize it at first because it’s all symbolism and the Flood is literally the kitchen sink. When you eventually see this you may hate it, but you can’t say it isn’t brilliant.
A little more down to earth is “Disobedience,” based on the book by Naomi Alderman and starring Rachel Weisz. She plays photographer Ronit who lives a secular life in New York but comes back to a Haredi community in North London when her father, a rabbi, dies. At first it seems like a typical push-pull between tradition and modernity, but once we dig in with the characters, it has the crackle and sympathy of real life.
Ronit stays with the two best friends of her youth, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who have since gotten married. In time we’ll realize that there are still lingering feelings between Ronit and Esti, who were lovers before Ronit’s father found them out. While Ronit left the community, Esti chose to stay, but what’s remarkable about this film is that no one is a villain. You expect this to be a condemnation of faith, but “Disobedience” is all about unexpected outcomes.
Coming off its Grand Jury Prize win at the smaller (but equally prestigious) Venice Film Festival, Samuel Maoz’ “Foxtrot” continues to impress audiences. It is an aesthetic triumph and emotional work-out, and any suggestion that the film gives ammunition to BDS supporters — as was suggested by Israeli Cultural Minister Miri Regev — is pure poppycock.
It is a story about grieving parents, human error and the corruption inherent in any power structure. While there are some elements of the plot that are very specific to Israeli culture (like an IDF rabbi briefing a thunderstruck father of a fallen soldier with funeral details) this is very much a universal story. And one shot with grace, confidence, humor and a visual flair that even makes cans of potted meat look beautiful.
Israeli director Tali Shalom Ezer’s English-language debut “My Days of Mercy” was one of the more touching films of the festival. While I don’t think it will be a break-out hit, it is a strong and heartwarming effort about a romance between Ellen Page and Kate Mara set against the issue of the death penalty. (I know that seems like a weird way to frame a love story, but you just have to go with it.)
French-Jewish actress Mélanie Laurent directed a film called “Plonger” (“To Dive”) about an unfulfilled artist who leaves her family. This sounds like a downer (and, by and large, it is) but it is gorgeously shot and edited, creating something of an associative haze to get you in the main character’s mind. Then the story shifts to that of her bewildered husband. Far from a crowd-pleaser but remarkable nonetheless.
Perhaps a little more likely to grab mainstream attention is the 1980s sports drama “Borg/McEnroe,” which stars real life troublemaker Shia LaBeouf in a role he was born to play: American tennis brat John McEnroe. The movie itself is only so-so (and it’s more about Borg than McEnroe) but every time LaBeouf is on screen he is mesmerizing. The young(ish) Jewish-American actor has had some difficult times of late, like showing up drunk at a bowling alley screaming for French fries, but maybe channeling that unfocused rage into this performance will help snap him back? Ball’s in his court.
Guillermo Del Toro (who isn’t Jewish, but we should pledge him in anyway) made a significantly Good For The Jews movie in “The Shape of Water,” in which Sally Hawkins, a lovable mute woman living in mid-century America, falls in love with a sea monster. Among the allies she makes in rescuing this Creature From The Black Lagoon-looking thing is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays a Russian double-agent scientist who goes against his orders for the sake compassion. Much of the story takes place above a movie theater that is showing “The Book of Ruth,” the central themes of which resonate throughout the whole story.
Some ‘lower lights’:
A little less Good For The Jews is “Molly’s Game,” a fast-paced and extremely entertaining yarn from Aaron Sorkin about Molly Bloom, the so-called Poker Princess who ran illegal games in Los Angeles and New York. Even though Jessica Chastain looks nothing like the real Bloom (they should have cast Mayim Bialik), this story, while true, has no shortage of Jewish stereotypes. Molly is, as they say, “good with money,” and many of the wealthy, entitled jerks are based on real life Jews, like the art collector heir Helly Nahmad, given a different name in the story. It isn’t like there are lines such as “Oy vey, I should’ve folded!” but there certainly is the whiff of a shonda about all this.
Another interesting (but ultimately disappointing film) is Ziad Doueri’s “The Insult.” Doueri recently made some news by being detained by Lebanese officials for daring to shoot part of his (vastly superior) 2013 film “The Attack” in Israel. This new one, considerably more heavy-handed, is about tension between the Lebanese Christian community and Palestinian refugees. The crux is that since they never had a truth and reconciliation period after their civil war, we should continue to expect both sides to hate one another.
In the film a simple misunderstanding between two proud men over a drainpipe escalates and threatens to tear the country apart. There is one thing, however, that each community can agree upon. Both factions loathe the Jews, and to accuse one of being a Zionist is the worst insult you can give. It is unclear if this is Doueri’s actual opinion or a case of a filmmaker representing characters without endorsing their position.
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