Here comes the neighborhood
At what point does a charming little movie about our common humanity become a cloying little movie running on the fumes of its conspicuous good intentions? In Wondrous Oblivion, it's a difficult nexus to pinpoint, which is both a credit and a detriment to writer/director Paul Morrison's amiable and ambling slice of life set in a working-class English neighborhood, circa 1960.
Morrison's downsized hero is David Wiseman (Sam Smith), an 11-something Jewish boy who lives with his German-born shopkeeper parents in a rowhouse on a street where their Christian neighbors treat them courteously enough. At school, David is the Charlie Brown of cricket, a sport he desperately loves. His teacher says he lives in a world of "wondrous oblivion," and at home, he proves it: Alone in his room, a dreamy David imagines the players on his cricket trading cards coming to life as he arranges them on his bed.
Then some new neighbors move in next door: the Samuels family, who are black and Jamaican, and whose big-hearted father (Delroy Lindo) sets up a small backyard cricket court. David watches the spirited family play for a few days, hungry to join the game. When he finally braves their invisible cultural barrier and makes friends, his mother quietly warns him that his behavior will "get us into trouble."
Or course, Mrs. Wiseman sounds uncomfortably like a Christian mother in Nazi Germany warning her children not to talk to Jews. That's the idea of Wondrous Oblivion, and Morrison pretty much wraps things up thematically in under 30 minutes. From there he can only teach the world to sing and play cricket in perfect harmony. David recites a Hebrew prayer for a rapt Samuels family and shows little Judy a bagel. Mr. Samuels takes David and his mother to a ska concert, where Mrs. Wiseman jiggles and jives, then enjoys a slow dance in her host's arms.
At its best, Wondrous Oblivion reminds us of the insidious everyday discourse of racism and anti-Semitism. A coy comment here, a sideward glance there: The good English ladies of the neighborhood tolerate these immigrants because we live in a democracy, but they don't ever really accept or embrace them. "Not all immigrants are the same," says one of Mrs. Wiseman's gal pals, obviously drawing the line with Jews just inside it. (The warmer Mrs. Samuels calls Jews "the people who gave us the Bible.")
The Holocaust winnows about the edges of Wondrous Oblivion, which Morrison essentially tells from a child's point of view. Judy has a grandma in her life, but David lost his "in the war." Some day he'll know what that means. In the meantime, lost in his innocence, he's coming of age well by learning to see past the superficial differences that caused it. AAb
7:30 p.m. Thu., March 31 at SouthSide Works (opening night reception), and 7:30 p.m. Tue., April 5, at Showcase West. Tickets for the March 31 screening are $30 ($10 for students) and include a dessert reception afterward with live entertainment.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival
The 12th annual Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival opens its two-week run on Thu., March 31, with Wondrous Oblivion, a 2003 British film making its Pittsburgh premiere. The festival offers 19 films -- 10 features, seven documentaries and two shorts -- from Israel, Europe and North America, representing Jewish experiences from the comic to the dramatic, and a diverse selection of documentary topics, from a CSI-like investigation of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing to the story of one family's reconciliation with surviving the Holocaust.
Films will screen through Sun., April 17, at four area theaters including SouthSide Works Cinema, on the South Side (412-381-7335); the Galleria, in Mount Lebanon (1500 Washington Rd., 412-531-5551); Showcase North in McCandless (9700 McKnight Road, 412-931-1870); and the Carmike 15 in Greensburg (Westmoreland Mall, Route 30, 724-834-1190). Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for students. For tickets and more information, see www.pjiff.net or call 412-992-5203.
The first week's selections are as follows:
BECOMING RACHEL. Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Amy Guterson incorporates stories told by her grandmother to spin a fable about young Rachel, who helps her family during the Depression. The 45-minute film was shot in Pittsburgh, and the April 3 screening will be followed by a discussion with the cast and crew. To be screened via video projection. 11 a.m. Sun., April 3, and 3 p.m. Sun., April 10. SouthSide Works
BONJOUR MONSIEUR SHLOMI. In Shemi Zarhin's coming-of-age comedy-drama, 16-year-old Shlomi (Oshri Cohen) is the default peacemaker in his fractured family, managing his infirm grandfather, his neurotic mother and sister, his jerky brother and his banished father. He's failing school, tormented by romantic crushes and finds his only pleasures in cooking gourmet meals. The film, while always engaging, spins Shlomi's tale of passive woe out a trifle too long, and when his liberation finally comes it feels rushed. Cohen is a soulful young actor, though, who is easy to root for. In Hebrew, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Wed., April 6 (Carmike 15); 8:40 p.m. Sat., April 9 (SouthSide Works); and 7:30 p.m. Mon. April 11 (Galleria). (Al Hoff)
HIDING AND SEEKING: FAITH AND TOLERANCE AFTER THE HOLOCAUST. After his Orthodox sons move to Israel and grow more insular, New Yorker Menachem Daum fears that their generation will lose a broader tolerance of all faiths. So he packs up his grumbling sons to search out the small Polish village and the Catholic farm family who kept his father-in-law hidden for two years during the Holocaust. It's a deeply personal but nonetheless inspiring journey, as Daum documents his travels and his discussions with resistant family members. What the extended Daum family encounters in Poland is surprising, bittersweet and heartwarming: It's a messy tangle of emotions typical of the human experience and proves that interplay of life, family and religious beliefs is always a work in progress, but also surely a struggle worth forging through. To be screened via video projection. In English, Yiddish and Polish, with subtitles. 1 p.m. Sun., April 3. SouthSide Works (AH)
LE GRAND ROLE. Steve Suissa's drama is about acting, so of course it's all about lying too -- in life more than in art. Maurice Kurtz (Stéphane Freiss) does voice-overs for a living, dubbing American movies into French, when he gets the audition of a lifetime. A famous Jewish American director (Peter Coyote) has come to Paris to film The Merchant of Venice -- in Yiddish. Just as Kurtz learns whether he got the role, he also gets bad news about his beautiful live-in girlfriend. It causes Kurtz and his barely Jewish compatriots to construct an elaborate lie -- but for a good cause. The drama is effective, but it far outweighs the comedy here. While the story is touching, it's also played at a desultory pace. And as with all instances of lying, it asks us to believe a lot of dim-witted characters. But as one bit character remarks: "The acting only stops when you die." To be preceded by Ari Sandel's musical comedy West Bank Story, a 22-minute short that recasts West Side Story with Israelis, Palestinians and two warring family falafel stands. In French and Yiddish, with subtitles. 7 p.m. Sun., April 3. SouthSide Works (Marty Levine)
OR. Crushing poverty and emotional disconnect tear a family apart in Keren Yedaya's Or. High school student Or shares a squalid apartment with her mother Ruthie, a prostitute. Or's greatest wish is to rescue her mother from the degradation of her work: She scrubs dishes for extra cash, and finds a job for Ruthie. But Ruthie's addicted to the streets -- she heads off to clean houses in vertiginous platform shoes, and hits the streets again the next night. Or's no golden child, though. She has torrid, anonymous liaisons in the alley, and when the landlord's interest in Ruthie wanes, Or pays the rent with her own body. In the end, she descends frightfully into the world she failed to save her mother from. This compelling, difficult film never blinks from the ugliness of sex work. In Hebrew, with subtitles. 9:30 p.m. Sat., April 2. SouthSide Works (Melissa Meinszer)
SEEDS. Founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach, Seeds of Peace is an annual summer camp where teens from conflicting nations -- Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan -- are brought together in woodsy Maine to work out their myriad differences on neutral territory. Appropriating the confessional-booth style of reality TV, Seeds, co-directed by Joseph Boyle and Marjan Safinia, follows various campers and camp leaders (often former "seeds" themselves) through an emotion-filled three weeks of group therapy sessions and Outward Bound-style exercises. Predictably, tight bonds are formed among some of the most unlikely contenders, although sadly, many of the campers' young minds -- and hearts -- remain tightly closed. The film's pacing is often sluggish; instead of introducing us to dozens of separate campers, shadowing three or four exclusively might have made for a more provocative tale. Still, Seeds is an intriguing look at a truly honorable and life-affecting experiment. To be screened via video projection. 7:30 p.m. Mon., April 4 (Galleria) and 7:30 p.m. Thu., April 7 (SouthSide Works). (Dan Eldridge)
WALK ON WATER. Is a comedy that asks us to parse a pair of extra-judicial killings -- one of an Hamas terrorist, the other of an ancient Nazi -- thematically ambitious, or just overreaching? And what if it's not quite a dark comedy, either, but one that begins as a political thriller and detours into self-realization drama, with stops along the way for buddy comedy? Mossad agent Eyal (the charismatic Lior Ashkenazi) poses as the Israeli tour guide for an idealistic young German in order to locate the young man's grandfather, a war criminal in hiding. Eminently watchable if morally slippery, director Eytan Fox's film sports interesting dialogue and cheeky humor, and its shifting tones keep you on your toes. But its ending manages to be both pat and ironic -- a fair summary of the film as a whole. In English, and German and Hebrew, with subtitles. 7:30 p.m. Sat., April 2, and 4 p.m. Sun., April 3. SouthSide Works (Bill O'Driscoll)
WONDROUS OBLIVION. (See review.) 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 31 (SouthSide Works) and 7:30 p.m. Tue., April 5 (Showcase North).