When filmmaker Jorge Gurvich was growing up in Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship. Some of his Jewish friends participated in revolutionary movements and were killed, but he focused on playing soccer for four hours a day.
“I really feel that in a way, soccer saved my life. I owe my life to soccer,” said, whose film “Back to Maracana” instills his obsession with the game in its characters.
The poignant 2018 Israeli-Brazilian-German feature film is one of six Jewish-themed films from Spain and Latin America that are screening this week and next at the inaugural Spotlight on Ibero-American Cinema at the Miami Jewish Film Festival (MJFF). With 100-plus film premieres from 25 countries, the MJFF — which runs for much of January — describes itself as the world’s largest Jewish film program.
Labeled as an unprecedented cinematic collaboration between Israel, Brazil and Germany, “Back to Maracana” makes its Southeast US premiere at the festival on January 15-16.
“My movie is not a classic Israeli one,” Gurvich told The Times of Israel. “It’s more a Jewish film, a human film, a universal story, a question of identities, and not a film about soccer… a film that’s about passion, family secrets, about human beings.”
In “Back to Maracana,” three members of a fictional Brazilian-Israeli family, the Spivaks — Samuel, the elderly patriarch; his underachieving, divorced son Roberto; and Roberto’s introverted preteen son Itai — come from Israel to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, traveling the country in a mobile home emblazoned with a Brazilian flag.
At first, the family’s cherished soccer tradition seems in jeopardy for the Spivaks in their current home of Israel. Preoccupied with finding work, compelled to live with Samuel, and unable to pay child support to his ex-wife Tali, Roberto doesn’t have much time to instill a love of soccer in Itai, who is busy playing on his smartphone.
But things change when Tali, a working professional, tells Roberto that she is going on a business trip with her German boss to Brazil during the World Cup. She asks Roberto to take care of Itai in her absence. He agonizes that the extended child-care will not only interrupt his spectating, it will leave him in Israel while she gets to go to Brazil. Yet Samuel finds a solution. He spends part of Roberto’s inheritance to fly himself, Roberto and Itai to Brazil for the Cup.
“I’m really happy a lot of Jewish film festivals are choosing to show my movie,” Gurvich said, adding that in past screenings, “people were laughing at the story I was making, people were crying, they were feeling emotions, strong emotions.”
“Back to Maracana” joins five other Jewy films from Spain and Latin America in the inaugural spotlight.
“Our Spotlight on Ibero-American Cinema is the first-ever extensive showcase of Spanish-speaking countries in the Miami Jewish Film Festival’s 23-year history,” festival director Igor Shteyrenberg wrote in an email to The Times of Israel. “We programmed it with the vision to highlight exciting new works by some of today’s most talented, established, as well as up-and-coming filmmakers from Argentina, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil.”
There are other ambitious efforts in store, including Argentine director Nestor Sanchez Sotelo’s dark comedy “El dia que me muera,” which made its US premiere January 13. The movie’s title literally means “The Day I Die,” but for English-speaking audiences it was translated as “My Amazing Funeral.”
The title reflects the unusual wish of the fictional protagonist, Dina Perelman, a Jewish mother who lives in a wealthy neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Dina misses her three adult expat children, but is petrified of flying to see them. Meanwhile, they don’t visit because they are preoccupied with their own lives — although not in the ways she thinks. Her son David, for example, lies that he cannot visit because he is a Mossad agent, which she proudly shares with her friends as they get their hair done in a beauty salon. Dina despairs of her children ever coming on their own, and decides to take matters into her own hands by faking her own funeral.
In an email to The Times of Israel, Sanchez Sotelo wrote that he “was delighted by the main idea of its plot, the fake funeral of a yiddishe momme,” in the original script, using the Yiddish expression for Jewish mother.
He said that it “responds to that nature of an overprotective mother, who no longer has power over her grown children and creates this crazy way [to] bring them back together with her. … In addition to comedy, we worked hard on the underlying theme: motherhood, accentuating the dramatic moments to build a story that oscillates between heart touching emotions and laughter.”
Other films in the Spotlight on Ibero-American Cinema explore tragedies such as the Holocaust and the Inquisition. “The House on Wannsee Street,” an Argentine documentary directed by Poli Martinez Kaplun, chronicles a Jewish family whose former home in Germany was located near the site of the plotting of the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference in 1942.
This Jewish family fled the Reich six years earlier, in 1936, and after a multi-country escape, they found a new home in Argentina — though according to the film they had to lie that they were Christian to enter, due to an Argentine government policy. The film makes its international premiere on January 20.
“Tu boca en los cielos,” or “Your Wishes in Heaven,” is a Spanish film that explores Sephardic history through the jumping-off point of a visit to the tomb of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whose 1492 decree forced Sephardim to convert to Christianity or leave the country. This aesthetically stunning film shows how modern-day Sephardim worship in diverse ways and places.
Other festival films not in the Ibero-American spotlight also have connections to Spain and/or Latin America. One is the Argentine comedy “Shalom Taiwan,” which makes its international premiere on January 22 in the grand jury prize competition (a precedent-setting award of $18,000). “Shalom Taiwan,” directed by Walter Tejblum, is about a Buenos Aires rabbi raising funds for his congregation, who takes the unusual step of going to collect in South Asia.
Whether these films spotlight soccer or Sephardim, South America or Spain, festival director Shteyrenberg has a definite goal.
“We hope that by bringing these international films to Miami, our festival will present the city and the film industry with a singular platform that bridges cultural understanding and encourages artistic development,” Shteyrenberg said.