Jewish thought tends to classify time in highly specific quantities: seven days from Shabbat to Shabbat, 49 days of counting the Omer, generation to generation.
The second week of this year’s edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival is filled with films that ponder the nature of time, and though they tend to see it in terms of the passing of generations — there are a lot of fathers and sons and daughters and surrogate offspring in the films — there is plenty of the precise compression of time that is the hallmark of the successful suspense film and the expansion of time that enriches the comedy of social embarrassment.
“Restoration,” an Israeli film by Joseph Madmony, opens with a pair of hands removing a wristwatch and putting it inside an old tin. We then see a series of shots of those same hands working old wood with a combination of fervor and delicacy that one can only find in a dedicated master craftsman. Fidelman (Sasson Gabai, head of the Egyptian police band in “The Band’s Visit”) is just such a craftsman, although his antique furniture business is on the edge of bankruptcy. When his partner dies of a heart attack, Fidelman is forced to rely on his upwardly mobile son Noah (Nevo Kimchi), a lawyer with connections, plans and a very pregnant wife (Sarah Adler). Or would he be better off trusting the enigmatic younger man, Anton (Henry David), who has turned up looking for work?
Although the plot line about a stranger who inserts himself into an unstable family situation is an old chestnut, Madmony manages to work an interesting series of variations on the story. From that opening shot of a man who puts time aside (literally) in the pursuit of a vocation that is more like a calling, through the entire credit sequence of Fidelman’s hands at work, ending with a close-up of Gabai peering at his own reflection in a glistening tabletop — the first time we see his face, albeit in a fragmented form — you are immediately aware that this master craftsman is being depicted by a filmmaker who is his equal. The progression is also an inspired metaphor for a man who has stepped out of time in order to reverse its effects, but who is, at best, only a partially integrated human being whose only identity comes from his work.
Madmony eschews the easy, melodramatic choices. Like Fidelman, a man who represses his feelings in front of others but is burning inside, Madmony works magic through the manipulation of the physical environment, the shop’s endless, choking clutter, the dust that seems to hang in the air everywhere, the film’s muted palette of cool blues and grays. “Restoration” is a muted but finally powerful film about intergenerational conflict and loyalty, one of the best films to play the festival in several years.
The time travel of “Remembrance,” a German film by Anna Justice, is of a sort more familiar to Jewish filmgoers. Hannah Silberstein, a German Jew (Alice Dwyer), and Tomasz Limanowski, a Polish Catholic (Mateusz Damiecki), meet and fall in love in Auschwitz. By the time the film opens, she is pregnant and he has a plan for their escape. The plan is executed with admirable precision, and Justice films it with equal deftness, in a series of carefully orchestrated cuts on movement that keep the action moving swiftly. But once the pair is out of the camp, we are suddenly taken to New York City in 1976 where an older Hannah (Dagmar Manzel) is married to a prominent scientist (David Rasche). While picking up her dry cleaning, Hannah sees a seemingly familiar face being interviewed on the store’s TV, and the film begins moving restlessly back and forth between the young lovers, torn apart by Tomasz’s anti-Semitic mother and the forces of Polish history, and the older Hannah, struggling with her feelings for two men, caught in the cross-currents of past and present. Justice handles this material fairly gracefully, gradually lengthening her takes as we get past the escape and into the more complex emotional reefs and shoals, and the film has a stunningly effective last shot.
Andrei Zagdansky, a New York-based Jewish-Russian documentarian, comes by his love of nonfiction film almost genetically. His father, Evgeni Zagdansky, was one of the heads of the Kiev Popular Science Film Studio from 1961 to 1979. Andrei began his film career working in the studio and quickly realized this was what he wanted to do with his life. The fruits of his labors, aptly and satisfyingly, can be seen in “My Father Evgeni,” a smart, impressionistic documentary about the passage of historical time as experienced by father and son. Using a cleverly thought out combination of archival footage, family movies and films from his father’s studio, bracketed by haunting footage of the now deserted corridors of that film factory, Andrei traces his family’s and his nation’s complicated, fractured history. Working with the play of textures that he gets by juxtaposing and manipulating the various film stocks, the director creates a dialectic of time — his father always speaking and thinking about the future, the son always dredging up the past — and the hurt of exile, that is both moving and smart.
The Israeli-Iraqi rock musician Dudu Tassa has a more straightforward relationship to his family past. In Gili Gaon’s profile of him, “Iraq ‘n’ Roll.” Tassa’s grandfather and grand-uncle were Sala and Daud al-Kweiti, two of the founders of modern Iraqi music, so important and beloved that they were guests at the palace in Iraq despite being Jews. But when they made aliyah in the 1950s, they found themselves in an Israel that didn’t appreciate their “old” music and were forced to earn a living as store owners, playing only infrequently. Spurred on by Yair Dallal, who had apprenticed with them as a young musician, Tassa has decided to incorporate their music into his repertoire, drawing on his mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of their songs.
The film follows him as he begins work on this project, eventually bringing together the wildly different worlds of Arabic music of the ‘30s and the remixed shake-and-bake rock and roll of contemporary Israel. Gaon stands back and lets Tassa tell the story through his conversations with former colleagues of the Al-Kweitis as well his mom and Dallal. And the music is simply terrific.
The 21st annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will continue through Jan. 26 at the Walter Reade Theater and the Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (both at Lincoln Center, on West 65th Street). For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com or www.TheJewishMuseum.org.