Saturday, October 22, 2022

34th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival 2022

In theaters: November 2–9; Virtual: November 10–13; visit: for the full program

Attachment, dir. Gabriel Bier Gislason, 2022, 105 min.

November 5, 9:15 pm, Brattle Theatre

Boston Premiere



Attachment is a modern-day thriller/horror film with no violence or blood, just fear of the supernatural lurking in the atmosphere. The story involves Jewish mysticism—what non-mystics would call superstitions to ward off demons and evil. The only way to talk about the film risks a spoiler, for the plot’s clues are so subtly woven into the action as to be missed. Be forewarned: unless you keep an unswerving eye on the camera’s focus and listen acutely to the dialogues’ subtext, puzzlement may result. And the epilogue’s playful twist only adds to audience uncertainty. At the same time, it is this very eeriness about the presence of invisible evil that disturbs us in a marvelous way. 


The film moves briskly and features three female protagonists, two of them—Maja and Chana—antagonists for the love of the third, Leah. Chana is Leah’s Jewish mother and Maya is Leah’s non-Jewish lover. A fourth character, Lev, Chana’s Orthodox brother-in-law and religious bookstore owner, is a scholar of the Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism that has, as Lev tells us, “the power to unlock the secrets of the universe and ward off evil.” Chana also knows and practices the Kabbalah’s esoteric rituals that include amulets, heaps of salt in the corners of rooms, candles lit at night, and soup concoctions made with chants to activate their magical powers—incantations like those of the witches in Macbeth, their cauldron bubbling with portentous vapors. We meet shopkeepers in London’s Orthodox neighborhood, home to Leah, Chana, and Lev. These vendors also know the mystic traditions and secretly sell Chana the sacred ingredients she needs for the rituals she performs for Leah, her lovely and charismatic daughter.


The film begins with Leah, a graduate student, meeting Maja during a research trip to Denmark. The two fall in love and return to Leah’s London flat, located above her mother Chana’s flat. The plot then takes off with sinister and suspenseful sounds and inexplicable happenings. Lev shows Maja a book from his shop about “the other side.” He turns the pages, pointing out supernatural beings who are evil, such as the Dybbuk, the tortured soul of a dead person who possesses a living person’s body, causing that person derangement and death—unless the Dybbuk can be expelled. Secret rituals can attempt to exorcise a Dybbuk, Lev tells Maja, but they are life threatening to those who perform them, and “nowadays out of favor, deemed dangerous. The Talmud forbids black magic and sorcery.”


Leah’s increasingly strange condition and her mother’s even stranger behavior, feeds the suspense and mystery of the movie. Catastrophe looms in the atmosphere. Uncertainty rivets each ticking minute: Who is good, who is evil? Is Chana a witch? Is Lev dangerous? What is going on that we do not yet understand? And can Maja—the only innocent one in this scary coterie—save her beloved from the invisible evil clutches moving in at an ever faster rate? Attachment offers viewers a fabulous, bated-breath film journey.


Sofie Grabol (Chana) deserves special note for her role as Leah’s mother. She fully embodies Chana’s deep psychic pain for the life of her daughter. Every detail of Chana’s internal, turmoiled state brims in her facial expressions, her movements and speech. It is as if she herself is possessed by a terrible power slowly destroying her. Attachment eschews back story—we learn little about the characters before the film’s present moment, and that is all we need to be in the grip of this thrilling tale.


For those interested in past Dybbuk films, check out my review of two that screened in Boston in 2018 and may be available for streaming:

Dybbuk etching by Ephraim Moses Lillien (1874–1925). 

Contributed to the Boston City Paper, by Gail Spilsbury,

Saturday, October 8, 2022

"Shorts" at the Boston Palestine Film Festival

October 14–23, 2022

For the festival’s complete program of documentaries, shorts, and feature films visit


Palestinian family traditions, particularly as they affect women, feature strongly in this year’s festival shorts. Young women, and in one case a young man, face the dilemma of needing to pursue their own life choices versus those involving the traditions of their elders, which the younger generation also respect.

Short films have the power to convey deeply felt personal stories in just a few minutes. The facial expressions of each character, the tension in silences, and the snippets of conversation not only capture an entire story, but also an emotional situation rife with inner unease—something audiences identify with at once and that words can rarely express.

This year’s shorts bravely connect us to our inner, hidden selves of fear, pain, love, anger, and self-doubt. Talented directors of both sexes have created these difficult family and cultural situations with such truth that our audience response is one of understanding and empathy—responses so often missing in our busy, me-first lives. 


Me and Youdir. Alexandra Muhawi-Ho, 2020, 17 min., USA

In Me and You, Amira, an Arab school teacher raised in the United States, juggles two lives—the one at home with her traditional mother who needs medical and emotional care, and the one in the outer world with an American culture that includes far more freedom for a woman, especially romantically. Love and duty keep Amira faithful to her mother, but also hiding her dating life with a colleague and her own discontent with Islamic traditions. Her home life looks and feels dark and curtained, while her outer life in the open and in school has freedom, choices. The stress of living two lives creates tension in all Amira’s relationships. Can she resolve her dilemma? Can she ever have a separate life from her mother’s? Her problem is driven home when her mother flings impassioned words at her: “May God keep you with me!” 



Hushdir. Samar Qupty, 2021, 20 min., Palestine, Israel

World premiere

Two friends, Nadine and Nour, band together to find out if Nour is pregnant—a problem that would be of severe consequence to her life. The film follows the young women on their quest to obtain a pregnancy test, which leads to a life-changing visit to a gynecologist Nadine’s dad knows, one who can supposedly be trusted to keep a secret. The young women’s journey for help within a society of prohibitive rules for women—despite the protagonists’ educated, bourgeois background—leads to Nadine’s awakening and resistance to such patriarchy. A low, ominous tone of warning sounds whenever one of the “helpful” male characters offers assistance to the women—a marvelous touch!


The Woman from Bar Blue, dir. Jalal Masarwa, 2021, 14 min., Palestine, Israel, Boston premiere

Familial conflict strikes and hurts at every turn in this relationship-packed short film. From the unhappy mother’s frost and spite meeting her son’s fiancĂ©e, to the son’s grandmother taking absurd revenge on the young woman for wrongs done to her by her deceased husband, to the father and son behaving passively, we witness one family living the extremes of ancestral wounds that cause dysfunction in next-generation relationships. The predicament that unleashes havoc at this family’s gathering springs from social class divisions, rules for sexual activity, and personal vendettas. Private griping soon leads to overt insults and on to destructive behavior. Like all wars on earth, only after irrevocable damage has been done, is a truce the only solution.



Borekasdir. Saleh Saadi,  2020, 15 min., Palestine

Borekas is a quintessential father and son film, every second pulsing with the tension of opposites and the suspense of how the problem will be resolved. The son has to make his plane back to Germany, and his father has insisted on driving him to the distant airport. Unfortunately, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The father takes an easy-going attitude toward the problem, while the son’s anger mounts as the minutes tick away. The past relationship between father and son slowly comes out— how they both feel hurt by the other and for the distance between them. Then, the father brings up his son’s secret, and in so doing opens a bridge to their reconnection and healing.



Be Good, dir. Jessica Damouni, 2021, 13 min., USA

Boston premiere

What a brave, powerful, and wholly educational film by Jessica Damouni. Be Good takes viewers into the deep mental hell of bulimia. We witness Lelia’s psychic pain about her body image that causes her to live as two personalities: the friendly, “everything is fine” person with her friends who phone about a birthday party that day, and the one who hangs up only to reenter the dark, terrifying world of her mind’s disorder. The latter state dominates her life, and Leila’s portrayal in a small bedroom attached to a bathroom becomes a perfect visual metaphor for the hidden, locked-in state that has taken possession of her mind.



Contributed to the Boston City Paper by G.D. Spilsbury 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Remarkable Realm of Shorts

Short Films at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, November 7–21, 2021

Short films capture a complete story in a matter of minutes, sometimes as few as five. Their ability to immediately pull the viewer in often relies on emotion conveyed through facial expressions. The characters also handle a dilemma, conflict, moral issue, or obstacle, carrying the audience along with them, as if present in the scene itself. This year’s shorts line-up at the Boston Jewish Film Festival includes narratives, documentaries, animation, and brilliant creations born out of Covid’s lockdown.


In Devek, a teenage boy takes his seriously ill mother to visit a medium, hoping to receive encouraging news about her prognosis. Instead, the medium shares the sad truth with him in private, and the boy’s face, digesting what this means for his life and hers, moves through an array of unspoken, deep feelings that pierce the heart of those watching. Here are just two of those memorable moments.

Devek, Dir. Uriya Hertz (2021, Israel, 14 min.)

Nominated for the Ophir Award for Best Short film,

Massachusetts premiere


Voices from the Balconies movingly captures older people’s loneliness, not as much from their worn faces as from the visual imagery of their dwelling places in innocuous, high-rise apartment buildings, their lives like a sea of windows. The film’s mind-blowing photography delivers the full impact of the aged, who speak a line or two about their “aloneness.”

Voices from the Balconies, Dir. Manya Lozovskaya (2020, Israel, 6 min.)

US premiere


Separated by Covid, Gil in Israel and Nira in New York have kept a long-distance relationship going via Zoom calls, which occasionally include long-distance sex. This film’s call involves a conflict for the couple to resolve, which Zoom, as their only medium of intimacy, impedes.

Long Distance, Dir. Asaph Polonsky (2020, Israel, 16 min.)

North American Premiere


The sinister face and body language of a shameless, deceitful character grips us the moment this movie opens, as we feel his  evil intent. He’s hunting Jewish artworks in Paris, 1942, and his  interactions with two art collecting families sustains upsetting suspense. The ending, though, delivers a twist!


The Collection, Dir. Emmanuel Blanchard (2019, France, 13 min.)

New England premiere


The uninhibited expressions on a little girl’s face as her vivid imagination moves this tale along, complements the unfolding of human behaviors and histories, and how they shift and affect relationships.

Ganef, Dir. Mark Rosenblatt (2020, UK, 14 min.)

Massachusetts premiere


Two worlds meet in this film about a creative, Orthodox young man from Brooklyn, who finds a place for his inner soul and talent outside of his cultural domain. When his success as a stand-up comedian in nightclubs grows, he faces the dilemma of where he truly belongs, or if it’s possible to inhabit two worlds, two cultures, in one person.

A Jew Walks into a Bar, Dir. Jonathan Leo Miller (2018, USA, 24 min.)

New England premiere

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Praxis Stage Presents Shakespeare’s "King John"

   Actor Michael Underhill and Director Kimberly Gaughan

Boston’s culture aficionados are in for a rare treat this winter with Praxis Stage’s production of King John, Shakespeare’s obscurest play about the medieval king’s embattled succession to the English throne. Today, King John is remembered as the tyrannical king in Robin Hood tales, though he also signed the Magna Carta.
In Shakespeare’s King John (the poet’s “most explicitly political play”), Praxis’s director Kimberly Gaughan seeks something different for her focus. Her eye for truth about human behavior draws out the deeper John, the fully present John, so that audiences can feel a connection to him, a personal identification to his moods, his decisions, his strengths and weaknesses, and even his cruelty—for the bottom line is, he’s human, just like the rest of us. Political mayhem may indeed dominate the play’s twists and turns, but the Praxis production focuses on John, the man, the human being, and Gaughan brings her love and understanding for this character to his new incarnation.
To realize her vision of John, Gaughan asked native Bostonian actor, Michael Underhill, to play the role. The two had worked together on Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Stage2’s production of Romeo and Juliet last spring. Gaughan, the show’s assistant director, had been taken with Underhill’s sensitive portrayal of Tybalt—in fact, he was the best Tybalt she’d ever seen.
King John is now in rehearsal and opens January 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, for a two-week run. At a recent rehearsal at the Cottage House in Dorchester, Gaughan and Underhill talked about their experience, or their “journey,” delving ever deeper into this “whacky, weird play,” as Gaughan says, or as Underhill quips, “how does all of this happen in the same play?”

GS: Kim, how did you feel taking on a play with such a richness of timeless themes, but at the same time of such magnitude that your audience might grope for understanding?

KGActually, when I read the play, I was entranced and enamored with parts of it and not the whole. It seems like Shakespeare was starting and stopping, like he was writing scenes without continuity—he was all over the place. So, I was interested in that challenge—stitching together this series of vignettes. And I was worried about the history aspect, because in Shakespeare’s time, the audience understood the family trees and that whole world of the play, but here, today, we just don’t have that knowledge, we don’t have that understanding of “Plantagenets.” I knew that we needed to do very clear things that would make that background available to audiences, and we’re using some theatrical elements to tell the story—we’re telling it physically as much as with text, and trying to connect it to how humans relate to one another.
What I realized when I was working with the play and getting into the rehearsals, was that there was no sense in trying to rail on the play’s historicity. We had to make it about the actual humans who were involved. So, finding those parallels—and Shakespeare’s so timeless—finding those moments that seem so contemporary despite the language. That’s really what I focus on in breaking this down. And of course, I’ve cut a lot, I’ve streamlined a lot, to make it more cohesive. That being said, it’s still a jumble, but it’s really resonating as we work through it in rehearsals. There are all kinds of interpersonal connections and relationships that you can identify in any family. In many ways, it feels like a family drama and I want to explore that as much as possible. As for the play’s political parallels to today, the text itself is political enough and the parallels are there. I’ve never been one to beat down on a topic. I think subtlety is more incendiary in the long run.

GS: What’s been your process for directing the play?

KG: Well, there’s been a lot of reflection, of course. And this is my first time directing on my own. In the past, I’ve assisted, and in those situations, I was working on something that I had already worked on in some capacity, or seen many times. For instance, I was the assistant director on Romeo and Juliet, which Michael was in—that’s how we met—and that was a play I have a lot of opinions about and feel really close to, and if I were to do it, I already have a vision of it in my head. With King John, I didn’t have anything in place, and this is actually freeing, even though it’s also a bit overwhelming because there are so many possibilities. Even though the play might feel chaotic when you first encounter it, there’s actually a beautiful simplicity to it. It has a lot of complexity and moving parts, but within that there’s a thread running through it. The emotional journey these characters go on is complex, and no one in the play is “black or white,” but rather living in a gray area throughout the course of the show. We’re handling these characters with the sympathy and kindness that the productions I’ve looked at haven’t, and for me, the through line is that people are complicated. You can’t cast them aside for one thing or the other that they’ve done. We have to take everyone as they are.
So, back to my process, I read the play. I watched what versions were available to me. I read it again. I traveled a lot this summer on trains, which gave me time to sit and storyboard a few things, ideas that were then thrown out. I spent time thinking about who these people were. All of the productions I had seen were traditionally Shakespearean—very old guys talking in crisp voices about politics. I wasn’t connecting to them, I felt there was more in the play, an underbelly. I knew that John was going to be my focus. He’s my favorite character. I felt there’s always been an unsympathetic approach to him—such as his portrayal in Robin Hood—and even the Arden edition’s commentary—it’s quite snarky about John. I knew I needed someone who could give him a vulnerability and a sensitivity despite all the things that happen in the play. I was working with Michael on Romeo and Juliet when the King John project came up. He was playing Tybalt, and Michael’s Tybalt was the best Tybalt I’ve ever seen. And he didn’t have a lot of text; we didn’t focus on that story arc in the play. He brought such a sensitivity to his role—a care to it. I thought: he’d be a perfect King John. So, a lot of my process was finding John and what his world would be like. 

GS: How did you discover your passion for directing and do you enjoy it more than acting?

KG: I really enjoy acting when it’s a part I’m excited about, which doesn’t happen much anymore. There are some roles I would jump at, but I find that directing is more satisfying. I’m a bit of a control freak, and as an actor, I’ve often been on the sidelines thinking, “Oh, I know what this scene needs! So, I finally got to explore that side of myself, and it’s been really fulfilling. I also had become a little disheartened, because I’d been in a lot of situations where I felt like the process of the play got away from the art, and that the people were more interested in the power dynamics of the project than the art. So, I was interested in creating an environment of kindness where people could explore their creativity.

GS: How are you bringing your personal vision to the play?

KG: The play’s contemporary, but it also has many influences going into it. Everyone’s bringing something to the table. Each actor brings something different, artistically, which changes and shifts everything. And from my perspective, I’m really interested in theater as a medium—how it’s different from film, how it’s different from television, and how we’re doing something that’s extremely theatrical that can remind people we’re in a communal space together. We’re sharing a moment—audience and actor—and there’s not the pretense of a fourth wall up between us. I’m really interested in how we can create a shared energy together. And so, my directing is not necessarily “how can we set this in 2020 and make it picture perfect with our contemporary times,” but instead, how can we evoke atmosphere, mood, and feeling that audiences can tie into with the willing suspension of disbelief. We want to create a cognitive experience where we set out to do one thing with a scene, but audience members see it and are reminded of something from their own lives—like a past experience of loss or grief. We have to remember that audiences are smart and the things that we do trigger ideas in them, so I’m interested in that creative sharing.

GS: What’s it like to direct Shakespeare in comparison to other playwrights?

KG: I think Shakespeare is, in many ways, easier for me because I’ve spent so much of my acting career doing it. I feel I have a very strong base—I’m confident doing Shakespeare. But I also feel with Shakespeare that we have so many notions, preconceived ideas about what it should be or what it needs to be, and these are very elevated. But I find many things in the plays that aren’t highbrow, that are just economical and simple, even though there’s all of the language, the poetry. So, resisting the urge to succumb to that, to what we think it is, is difficult. Directing any play is hard. You read it, you make an idea about it, and you think “this is what it is.” Then you get in the rehearsal room, and you have five bodies all talking, all contributing, and it’s totally different. So, it’s always hard.

GS: What’s it been like to work with your actors?

KG: It’s been a dream. We really put together an incredible group of people. I’ve worked with Michael before, so I knew that was going to go well, and I’m working again with David Picariello (he plays several roles in King John), with whom I had just been in Trayf this past fall with the New Repertory Theatre. Then, Daniel Boudreau and I quickly established a positive working relationship. So out of the eight were three I already knew and felt good about. I cast the others based on their auditions, and we really picked the most creative bunch of people I could’ve hoped for. Everybody jumps in all the time with wonderful ideas, and they’re so game to try new things. We have a really wonderful group.

GS: Michael, what’s it like to be an actor in the play, and the title role?

MU: I think a really challenging aspect of directing is the balance between having a strong artistic vision while also providing freedom and flexibility to the other artistic collaborators in the room, and that is the strength of this process with Kim. Everyone does have a voice, and we all know what field we’re playing on. Kim has set that vision for us. It’s a rarity to have that. I feel we have a really strong ensemble for this play, and there’s really no “lead role” in our production, partly because we have such a small cast and everyone shares the load equally. Everyone gets their moments to carry the play. One of the best characters in the play doesn’t even have a name—he’s “the citizen.” This sharing has been a delight for me, as it’s a lot to take on a title role. Yet it’s also been a blessing to jump into a process where I have more to do, where I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of larger theaters in town, in more ensemble type roles, with the opportunity to learn from a lot of artists I consider role models. To be able to take that learning and put it into practice is liberating. It’s been so great to work with King John, and with Kim’s guidance and blessing to really find the human being in him.
In some of my first broad strokes, my first-draft versions of John, he was unsympathetic—not someone that you’d want to spend two hours with. And now, I really do want to spend two hours with him, and I want to be sure audiences do too, and really take this journey with him and confront the same challenging situations and decisions he has to make throughout the play, whether the audience agrees with him or not. And that’s been a really fun challenge for me to play.
I also came to the play with no preconceived notion of King John, including his negative portrayal in Robin Hood. It’s really thrilling to do that, to come to a character without preconceived ideas. There’s something that you’re playing against with characters that have been done a million times. I definitely empathize with John. I think he embodies things that a lot of us deal with, such as the imposter syndrome, where you’re constantly seeking validation for what you’re doing, for the choices or decisions you’re making—wanting to know you’re worthy of your place and your time. We can all relate to that and empathize with John. That’s my job—to find the human in him, figure out why he makes certain decisions, not just whatthose decisions end up being.

GS: Could you share a bit about your acting career?

MU: Sure, I’ve been acting since I was fourteen. I grew up in Norwood and went to Northeastern University, graduating in 2010, and have been really fortunate to be working continuously in the area for the last decade. Lately I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to do a lot of Shakespeare, and it’s something I’ve really developed a strong attachment to, a kinship to, a relationship to the language and to the plays, and also bringing it to audiences. Two shows before King John that have been highlights for me were Cymbeline and Richard III for “Shakespeare on the Common,” for 5,000 people each night—an experience you won’t get anywhere else. Everyone has his or her own journey as an artist, as an actor, as whatever you’re pursuing, and it’s something that feels like home—when you’re in the rehearsal room or in the theater—that’s what you’re doing it all for—finding your way home. This is how I’ve approached my fifteen years of acting.

GS: What do you hope is the audience’s take-away watching this play?

MU: Well, King John is a play that not many in the audience have read of seen, or come to with any preconceived notions. I hope they come with curiosity and learn something about this play and the characters in it. I hope they have opinions about the characters and develop relationships with them—that they’re going on this journey with us, because there are so many things that happen in the play, so many surprises, so many left turns out of nowhere, and so many surprising decisions that the characters make. I just hope the audience is able to experience the same thing that we all experienced the first time we read through it and the first time we went through it in rehearsal and thought, “Oh my god, how does all of this happen in the same play?”

GS: Kim, what about you, do you have a special take-away for the audience?

KG: My biggest question when we started this was, does King John work as a play? A few months ago, I was with another theater artist before we started rehearsals, and I mentioned I would be directing John in the winter. He said, “That play doesn’t have an ending!” He was right, and so, I was dealing with those sorts of concerns. So, my big thing is, does King John work? I’m interested to hear what audiences think. Is it a play that’s worth doing? I feel it is. It’s a weird, whacky journey, but at the same time, it so simply confronts and explores humanity’s desire to connect. I want audiences to experience theater. I want it to be worth it for somebody to come to the theater and say, “That was a night well spent!” It should be different from sitting at home and watching a movie on TV. I want people to feel like it was a worthwhile endeavor, because they got something that they’re not going to get anywhere else. 

Tickets and Information
(617) 933-8600

Praxis Stage
Praxis Stage seeks to link theater with activism and produce plays that enter the current cultural and political conversations. The company cultivates a core of artists who burn to tell stories that both address injustice and imagine a more equitable and truly democratic society, while also pulling in new artists to enrich the programs. Praxis pays particular attention to productions with a diversity of identity and that showcase Boston’s born-and-raised talent. Its artists create enthralling theater that affects, moves, challenges, troubles, delights, and ultimately inspires audiences.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Marriage Story

Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, stirs a lot of thoughts for audiences. It gives a realistic depiction of a youngish couple with a child going through divorce. Adam Driver plays the husband Charlie, a rising-star, theater director in New York, and Scarlett Johansson plays his wife Nicole, a talented actress in his plays. Laura Dern plays Nicole’s tough L.A. divorce lawyer. Released by Netflix, the movie is billed as a drama/comedy, but there is no comedy in this film’s sad, realistic portrayal of two decent persons’ drifting apart, with one of them deciding to leave. After the separation, horrendous acrimony slowly builds until a final, emotional blow-up shatters everyone—the couple and the audience.
Whose point of view tells this story? The man’s or the woman’s? Or, was the take-away for a man watching this film different from the take-away for a woman? Having thoroughly experienced the couple’s feelings, I, a woman, left the theater wondering if a man had experienced the characters’ heartbreak differently from me. I felt it must be so, for the film’s point of view lacked clarity.
I called a friend, a male and a millennial psychologist, and indeed his take-away was wholly different from mine. I identified and sympathized with Nicole’s stunted potential in a marriage where she served her rising-star husband, who loved her and their family life, but had no true interest in her “being,” who she was, as his passion and focus were totally on himself and his work and ambition. Everything else was rote for him and done according to the book of what was right and currently “enlightened,” such as how to be a good father, a considerate household partner, and a good, fair, and beloved director to his troupe.
When, as happens in long marriages, Nicole lost interest in sex, Charlie found sex with the stage manager of his company. No, he didn’t love her, he just needed that kind of intimacy and ego-gratification. He is god in his world. But the affair isn’t why Nicole leaves. She leaves because at age 40ish, she realizes she isn’t fulfilling her own life, her own gifts, her own passion, and she will never be able to if she stays with Charlie to serve his life and his success, which includes receiving a MacArthur grant for $600,000 to further advance his talent. Moreover, his new play is going to Broadway. His power and recognition are only going to keep growing while she stays as she is—his dependable wife, his actress in second place, his competent family partner, his solace and safety when home in the nest she provides.
As in all marriages that begin in the mid-twenties, the partners evolve with time and their risk of not evolving together is high. Charlie and Nicole clearly love and care about each other, but the marriage is over for Nicole if she wants to live, if she wants an authentic, fulfilling life. She returns to her mother’s home in L.A. when a pilot TV series offers her a role. She takes their son Henry along. It’s not certain the show will take-off, so the trip is presented as short-term to see what happens. Once there, however, life feels so good to Nicole—her true identity is able to emerge, not only as an actress free from the shadow of her husband’s greatness, but also as a future director herself, which is her dream. Henry also loves living in L.A. with Nicole’s active, extended family life that includes cousins. The only problem is, Charlie’s life is in New York, so that his career and ambition become bombed by Nicole’s decision to remain in L.A. when the pilot succeeds. But it’s not just the pilot that makes her stay. It’s her good feelings about herself, about having a meaningful life, her right just as much as his. In L.A., she’s not Charlie’s appendage anymore, which was fine in her twenties when she worshiped him and came under his wing, but it’s not fine now in her maturity. She has her own developed talent, equal to his when freed from its cage.
My male friend’s take-away was different. He saw Charlie as the victim of Nicole’s manipulations. She left New York knowing her L.A. stint was going to be permanent. She tricked him, and now has the child legally in L.A. causing a custody suit. Her character was shallow while his was deep. Not only that, but Adam Driver was a far better actor than Scarlett Johansson. And Nora, the aggressive L.A. lawyer, was creepy, hideous—he shuddered just remembering her.
I want to pause here and say that Nora, portrayed as L.A.’s toughest, man-gouging divorce lawyer for women, also affected me as a female viewer. She’s groomed pejoratively: slinky, skin-revealing clothes (like a gross sex object), long blond hair incongruous with her aging face, and a fake way of communicating with her new client, all saccharine in order to win her business. Why was Nora presented this way? Perhaps to mock L.A./Hollywood culture when it comes to divorce, for Charlie’s L.A. male lawyer is even worse. These characters are driven by money and how much you can get from your future ex-spouse; no concern for damage done to children and the parents in such an antagonistic, bitter, and volatile tug of war. It’s crass and tragic.
But there’s more to consider. Everything that spouts from Nora’s smart, fighter lips about the double standard is true. Who is listening to her? Perhaps some members of the female audience. I heard her and as a result, overlooked her unappealing traits because she spoke the truth about male-female relationships and how society condones men and condemns women in the same situation. My male friend couldn’t tolerate her, and because of her money-grasping and exterior traits, he felt even more that Nicole was a conniving manipulator and Charlie a victim. Again, the film’s point of view comes up. Was everything Nicole said to Charlie about her deepest feelings and why she was leaving, and Nora’s pronouncements about the double standard, part of the script for the truth they told or part of the script to mock women in favor of Charlie the battered hero?
It would be interesting to set up a poll to compare the male and female responses to this movie—and I welcome hearing from you. The film ends nicely, because Nicole and Charlie are able to go back to their original, honest and caring roots and dump the lawyers in their divorce. And Charlie accepts the reality that Nicole is not coming back and figures out a way to make fruitful changes in his professional life in order to be near his son. But what is the film’s point of view about that, about Charlie making changes to accommodate the divorce? My point of view is: good solution. My friend’s point of view might be: she forced him to wreck his career, give up his New York life and passion. Nora the lawyer might say: This film perpetuates the way society has always viewed women as demons; it upholds the superior integrity and value of men. And the film? We don’t leave the theater knowing the film’s point of view, but my closest guess is: Charlie’s beleaguered treatment deserves our support. Hopefully it’s a wrong guess.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Cranes Are Flying

Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov (Russia,1957)
December 15, 2019, 3:00 pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Cranes Are Flying takes place in Soviet Moscow during World War II, when the Russians declare war on Germany. Shot in black-and-white, in possibly the best cinematography in that medium, the film cries, bleeds, with feeling, most of it portrayed through the central character’s facial expressions. She is young, vivacious, Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), whose heart skips and soars with love for twenty-five-year-old Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a factory engineer and son of a prominent doctor. Handsome, concert-pianist Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) also lives with Boris’s family and is in love with Veronica, but she adamantly rejects him in favor of Boris, whom she plans to marry.

The movie opens with the lovers traipsing along the embankment of the Moscow River. They’re as carefree and exuberant as children, for such is the feeling of being in love. Suddenly, Veronica stops and watches a formation of cranes flying overhead. Her face shows total awe and the camera focuses on her feeling. From then on, throughout the movie, life’s deepest feelings are shown through the characters’ faces, especially Veronica’s, for it’s her story. The camera work connects us, the audience, to those same innermost feelings that words can never convey.

Intentionally or not, the cranes in formation have a flip side and portend the coming war and fighter jets on their way to bomb cities and humanity; the miracle of nature juxtaposes the villainy of humanity. The cranes in flight bookend the movie—appearing just before and just after the war. Another bookend also frames the story: Veronica fighting her way through throngs of cheering Muscovites as they send their soldiers off to war, and then, when they greet them home again. In these crowd-scene bookends, Veronica is first trying to find Boris to say farewell, and then, trying to find him among the returning soldiers. When the cranes fly overhead in this last scene, they convey through Veronica’s facial expression the inexplicable coexistence of “wondrous life” and “imperfect humanity,” for she has learned Boris is dead. She has no choice but to carry on after war’s death, destruction, and grief—such is life.

The story is like a fairy tale, a parable, or a morality play. The characters are stock: young lovers, family patriarch, dishonest cousin, judgmental sister, wise grandmother. We don’t need unique personalities or witty dialogues for this story to deliver its breathtaking magic. Nor does its dated morality impinge on its art. What the film delivers in camera work by Sergey Urusevsky attains a peak of visual art, and of course depends somewhat on Samoilova’s talent for expressing her character’s inner states through only physical and facial movements. The camera’s “subjective style” takes us into her unconscious mind’s image-experience of traumatic events, such as her rape by Mark, her panic in the mob, her discovery of her parents’ bombing death, and her final reawakening to hope, humanity, and love. As one Russian critic wrote when the film came out, “You don’t know whether the image of Veronica owes her charm to Samoilova’s talent and sincerity or to Urusevsky’s art, able to catch in the turn of a head, a momentary pose, the blink of eyelashes, the helplessness and obstinacy, the tenderness and pride of this particular woman’s character.”

Urusevsky achieves this same powerful hold on us when Boris, fighting on the swampy front, is hit by a bullet. We die with him, we experience his last, unconscious mind’s images, not his thoughts, before he keels over backward into the sloshing mud. The camera twirls and swirls and collides with images we feel, we relate to, that are beyond verbal communication. On a side note, one marvels at the terrifying risk Samoilova (or her double) takes during the first mob scene when she runs blindly through rolling army tanks looking for Boris as the Soviet forces leave Moscow for the front.

Our values, our way of living, our morality, and our artistic renderings have changed since The Cranes Are Flying was made. We no longer portray new love in an idealized, ultra-sentimental way, even if we actually feel that way when newly in love. Our Western society has become open and conscious of gender and minority equalities. The shame and ostracism placed on Veronica because she marries Mark after he violently rapes and mentally crushes her wouldn’t happen today. The movie’s attitude toward war has also changed. When the German invasion occurs, Boris and his friends automatically rush to sign up: fighting for the homeland is their responsibility. One thing has not changed about the movie: what it achieved in 1957 with its cinematic portrayal of our innermost feelings remains. For film art lovers, Cranes is a must see.