Sephardic Gangster Flicks


The Bettouns are a traditional kind of family. They decorate their homes with menorahs and affix mezuzahs to their doorposts. They gather in the synagogue for bar mitzvah services and celebrate in lavish style. And when someone dies, they immediately say the Shema: even when that person has just been thrown from a helicopter into the backyard of the family compound.

A mafia dynasty in the Corleone model, the Bettouns hail not from Sicily, but from the Algerian-Jewish community in France: or, more precisely, from the imagination of the Algiers-born French filmmaker Alexandre Arcady. Virtually unknown here, at home Arcady has created blockbuster "policiers," or cop flicks, two of which will have their New York premieres at the Seventh Annual Sephardic Film Festival.

This year’s festival, titled "The Many Worlds of the Sephardim," runs Dec. 10-17 at the Center for Jewish History and features 19 documentaries and feature films: including 11 from Israel. Among them are "Day of Atonement II" (1992), the second installment of the Bettoun family epic, and "K," Arcady’s 1997 thriller in which a French-Algerian policeman investigates the murder of an elderly German by a Holocaust survivor.

Born in 1947, Arcady moved to France in 1962 with his family and a million other "pieds noirs," or Europeans who fled the newly independent Algeria. From his directorial debut in 1978 with "Le coup de sirocco," the blonde and blue-eyed director and screenwriter has boldly portrayed the pieds noir’s exile experience, often incorporating depictions of North African Jewish life and customs.

Arcady’s proudly Sephardic work shows that "people who are true to their heritage can still make it in the film world," says the festival’s curator Sheba Skirball, a film historian and programming consultant who has lived in Israel since 1971.

Raymond Bettoun (played by Algerian-born Jewish actor Roger Hanin) is hardly the first Jewish mobster to be immortalized in celluloid, but audiences may be surprised by how seamlessly Jewish practice and ritual, if not morals and ethics, are woven in to his story.

"Day of Atonement II," which also stars French actor Richard Berry and Americans Christopher Walken, Jill Clayburgh and Jennifer Beals, begins with a gunshot followed by shofar blasts and segues into a bar mitzvah Torah service. The original "Day of Atonement" (1981) (a box office hit that reportedly aired repeatedly on French television) includes scenes of a circumcision ceremony and a Friday evening Sabbath service. Both films show mourners sitting shiva: a common occurrence in a family with "more graves than cradles."

Arcady clearly does believe that showing a Sephardic family’s seamy side would reflect on the community as a whole. "Why be an ostrich?" he asked in a 1982 interview with the Jerusalem Post. "I’ve always felt that being circumcised a Jew is not synonymous with being perfectly good and clean. If there are Jewish gangsters, why not speak about them?"

Of course, the Sephardic Film Festival offers many more savory views of Jewish culture from around the Mediterranean. Its organizers at Sephardic House, the cultural division of the American Sephardi Federation, aim to expose audiences to less celebrated aspects of Sephardic history and culture.

On opening night, Shaul Meislich’s documentary "Embrace Me," has its U.S. premiere. The film depicts the career and immigration to Israel of the Moroccan-born musician Jo Amar, who performs live at the Dec. 10 gala event. (Rabbi Elyahu Bakshi-Doron, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Ambassador Mohamed Bennouna, permanent representative of Morocco to the United Nations, are expected to attend.)

A special evening, titled "Sephardic Women Speak Out" is devoted to the films of the Ma’ale School of Television, Film and the Arts in Jerusalem. The institution was established in 1989 to create works that counterbalance a perceived liberal bias in the mainstream Israeli media. Films from the school include "Bodyless," about a famous belly dancer who turns to God but can’t quite shake her love for dancing and "Ilana, To Sing in Karamanji," about bank teller who discovers a talent for singing.

Other festival entries document the Sephardic community in Seattle, the "mountain Jews" of Azerbaijan and Turkey’s role in rescuing and sheltering Jews during the Holocaust.

"We’re always looking for these little known stories," Skirball says.

Director Eli Cohen’s 1999 film "Egoz" tells the story of the Moroccan Zionist underground and the ship carrying Jewish refugees that sank en route to Israel in 1961. Rami Kimchi presents two films about his Egyptian-Jewish family and its integration into Israeli society: "Travels With My Brother" (1997) and "Cinema Egypt" (2001). Cohen and Kimchi are among the directors attending screenings of their films. Alexandre Arcady appears on Dec. 15.

The Seventh International Sephardic Film Festival takes place Dec. 10-17 at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan. The Festival is presented by Sephardic House and Yeshiva University Museum. A complete schedule of screenings and all tickets are available from the Center Box Office (917) 606-8200. $9, $7; $30 Festival Pass good for five films, excluding opening night. For information about the opening night gala, please call the American Sephardi Federation, (212) 294-8350, Ext. 2, or e-mail