'Ivan' shows prewar Poland without the song and dance

October 07, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Imagine "Fiddler on the Roof" without music, in black and white and really stinky-filthy.

But why imagine? Why not see "Ivan and Abraham," which opens today at the Charles? The movie might be considered an icon of anti-shtetl sentimentality: It looks back to the tiny villages of the Polish diaspora without nostalgia and sees them as one must suppose they truly were -- bleak, mean, ugly, inescapably dirty and vile. Places less to be remembered as escaped. Nobody sings "Tradition" or "If I Were a Rich Man."

Yolande Zauberman's movie is dense and at times so impressionistic that it's all but impenetrable. Yet it creates an immaculately imagined physical world and accumulates considerable power as it prowls among the tribes of the doomed in the last years before World War II.

Basically, it locks on two couples: the boys of the title, who are Jewish and Polish, and Aaron and Rachel, lovers -- he a sophisticate (and Communist) from the city, she a shtetl girl. All find themselves in complex circumstances.

The circumstances are complex because Zauberman has no patience for the audience. She simply whirls us into this world, with its welter of languages and tribes, and lets us puzzle things out on our own. The effect is disorienting, but themes eventually emerge. It's a tribal world, the Jews and the peasants awkwardly co-habiting under the pressure of a failed economic system, the land has been bled dry; tensions inevitably rise, the air seethes with menace, the word "pogrom" is in the wind.

Characters and relationships swirl into the film: the "Prince," a dissolute Polish nobleman whose profligacy has all but ruined the province; the very smart rabbi who must bear the brunt of the Catholic peasants' fury for the economic failure; various sets of lovers and friends.

The movie ultimately springs its two couples to roam the Polish countryside in search of escape, conjuring up mad adventures. In one, the two boys mingle with the population and go to church, and the Jewish Abraham encounters a vivid painting of the blood libel that haunted and propelled eastern Europe anti-Semitism for a hundred years. In another, Abraham gives his love to a sick foal, itself owned by another mad Pole.

"Ivan and Abraham" indeed builds to an escape, but it's an escape founded on a tragedy. The movie doesn't send you out humming, but with a headache for all the woe that's weighted down the world.

"Ivan and Abraham"

Starring Sacha Iakovlev and Roma Aleandrovitch

Directed by Yolande Zauberman

Released by New Yorker films


** 1/2

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