Movies dramatize acts of Nazi resistance

Review: The Jewish Film Festival begins with two great films about hope and survival.

April 06, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Film-lovers of every race, religion and creed can renew their faith in people - and possibly in movies - with the first two entries in this year's Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, which runs today through April 27. The French feature I Am Alive and I Love You, tonight at 8:30, and the American-Israeli documentary The Optimists, Tuesday night at 7:30, solidly dramatize the resistance to fascism in ways that should take hold in any person's gut. Their unself-conscious heroes act the way good neighbors should: They feel a natural revulsion when the Nazis try to reduce the Jews around them to subhuman status.

In Roger Kahane's I Am Alive and I Love You, winner of the Audience Award at the 1999 Washington Jewish Film Festival, a railroad worker, Julien (Jerome Deschamps), seizes a letter that a Jewish woman named Sarah drops through the slats of a deportation car and delivers it to her parents and son. The encounter touches him to an extent he can't immediately gauge; he tries to save Sarah's parents, and ends up taking her boy home when the child alone survives a Nazi raid.

Deschamps told a French interviewer that he admired the film precisely because Julien "arrives at Resistance by different ways." His superb performance is the rock of the movie. Julien is a real but reluctant champion: a bookish fellow who hooks up with the Underground only after he falls in love with Sarah through her diary and becomes a surrogate father to her son. Tender and unsentimental, the movie elicits tears. What's unusual is that it earns them.

Jack and Lisa Comforty's The Optimists takes a simple human act like Julien's and multiplies it by 50,000: This tightly knit, 83-minute documentary describes a veritable epic of ethical courage. With its own casual lucidity, it draws you into history, chronicling the Bulgarian citizenry's refusal to accept genocide and their incredible success at saving their Jewish population - even though the Nazi-allied Bulgarian government deported Jews from its occupied territories of Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Thrace to the death camps.

Rooted in Jack Comforty's own Bulgarian heritage, the movie shows how the protective acts of friends, the timely protests of right-minded politicians, and the towering rectitude of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church conjured a grassroots moral force that protected Jews like an invisible shield. And this shield grew visible when necessary: like when a bishop marched into a yard filled with Jews and proclaimed that if Nazis herded them into the cattle cars, he would go along with them.

The movie resurrects both a forgotten piece of history and an inspirational dream of Jews, Christians and Muslims forging bonds of neighborly affection and civic partnership. The movie is named for a big band that aped the styles of Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman; in one of its most heartrending scenes, non-Jewish members save a fellow musician from certain death. Near the end, a Bulgarian Orthodox cleric declares that men must hold on to their faith and respect the faith of others, even when stripped of goods and livelihood and pride. You have to agree with the rabbi who suggests that you can define a Bulgarian as "a mensch."

Baltimore Jewish Film Festival. Gordon Center for Performing Arts. 3506 Gwynnbook Ave., Owings Mills. Tickets $7. Call 410- 542-4900, Ext. 239.

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