Oscars night could be glorious for Israeli, Jewish-themed films


NEW YORK (JTA) — The Jews, we well know, run Hollywood. But even the most unreconstructed anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist probably would never had anticipated a year like this: Three Jewish-themed films vying for the Best Picture nod on Sunday, and an Israeli contender up for Best Foreign Language Film. 

True, the Oscars this year expanded the field of Best Picture hopefuls to 10. But thanks in part to that change, Sunday’s 82nd annual Academy Awards ceremony will offer considerable fodder for Semitic speculation.

Topping the Jewish favorites list is “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s brutal counterfactual fantasy in which the Jews get all sadistic and the Nazis get scalped.

No less a Jewish authority than the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, has sung the movie’s praises following a December screening at the Conservative movement flagship institution.

“Wow, that was fun,” Eisen said, according to an account in The New York Times. “I’m not supposed to feel that way, I know — I’m Jewish.”

The film also was screened recently in Los Angeles at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

And the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, has said the film is deserving of the Oscar nod.

“Employing drama, comedy and romance with the quintessential Quentin Tarrantino touch, the film is entertaining, yet thought-provoking,” Foxman wrote in the Huffington Post last month. “Hopefully the millions who see it will understand the horrors of the Holocaust and echo my view of ‘if only it were true!’ Like its predecessors ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Life is Beautiful,’ ‘Inglourious Basterds’ should be recognized with an Academy Award.”

If endorsing an Oscar contender wasn’t enough movie machering for 2010, the ADL also has proffered its thoughts on another film vying for the Best Picture honor: “An Education.”

Adapted from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, and with a screenplay by the novelist Nick Hornby, the film features a Jewish protagonist who fans of Woody Allen and Phillip Roth will quickly recognize — the older, somewhat lecherous man salivating over the sexual charms of a much younger shiksa. Some commentators have questioned whether “An Education” crosses the line into anti-Semitism, but the ADL is seeking to assure audiences that the film is clean.

“There is nothing in the film to suggest that the main character represents Jews as a whole or even some Jews,” the league said in a statement. “To call it anti-Semitic would suggest that any depiction of bad behavior by a Jew is beyond the pale. That is not the view of ADL, and ADL does not find the film offensive.”

Similar quibbles could be raised as well about “A Serious Man,” the latest work from the consummate Jewish filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, but for the most part they haven’t been. Based in large part on the Coens’ Minneapolis childhood, “A Serious Man” is the story of the hapless Larry Gopnik, a long-suffering physics professor who tries to do right and finds himself thwarted at every turn.

A darkhorse candidate for Best Picture, “A Serious Man” may well be the most deeply Jewish mainstream film ever made. Its cultural references are so parochial, so frequent — and in some cases, so obscure — that all but the most Jewishly literate viewers missed more than a few of them.

Eulogizing the departed Sy Ableman, the overweight shmuck who steals Larry’s wife in the film, the rabbi exclaims, “Where does such a man go? A ‘tzaddik’ — who knows, maybe even a ‘lamid vovnik’ — a man beloved by all.” The latter is a Yiddish reference to the Talmudic idea that the world is sustained in the merit of 36 hidden righteous people.

Rounding out the Jewish Oscar offerings is yet another acclaimed film from Israel, “Ajami,” hoping to finally claim the Jewish state’s first Academy Award.

Most critics agree that filmmakers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani have produced a work of uncanny beauty, exploring the inherent drama of human relationships that even if set against the backdrop of a sectarian conflict appeals to universal understanding.

Following the nomination of “Beaufort” in 2008 and “Waltz With Bashir” last year — a film that many thought had the artistic muscle to finally bring home the statue — the nomination of “Ajami” alone is further evidence that Israeli cinema has not only matured but arrived.

It may also show that Copti and Shani are continuing to push Israeli films away from the political drama that has been the local film community’s bread-and-butter topic for decades.

“Copti and Shani are preoccupied with human dynamics far more than political or social ones; if issues like military policy and economic inequality are present at all, it’s simply as part of the cinematic furniture,” Steven Zeitchik wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Over the last several years Israeli movies, which for so long have been set in political hotbeds or wars (there are a lot to choose from), have tied in with far less frequency to the morning papers and evening news.”

Which may be just as well, for if there’s anything that the Best Picture nominees illustrate, it’s that handwringing about “what it all means” and whether it’s “good for the Jews” is seemingly destined to remain an indelible feature of Jewish moviegoing.

The question — at least for Sunday night — is how, if at all, such concerns have impacted the votes of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the 6,000 movie pros who ultimately will determine the winner.

Recommended from JTA