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In Review: 'Joanna,' 'Polish Bar'

The Jewish Film Festival came through the Smith Rafael Film Center this past weekend.

Joanna

Writer-Director Feliks Falk's Joanna is a harrowing portrayal of a Polish woman's efforts to harbor a Jewish girl in her apartment in German-occupied Poland. San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Executive Director Peter Stein introduced the film by calling Falk a founder of a movement dubbed "the cinema of moral anxiety," which is a fitting description of Joanna's emotional and physical torment as she endures numerous hardships to protect young Rose.

Within the opening minutes of the film, we see Rose escape a raid on a cafe where Joanna works. The girl's mother is taken by Germans, and when Joanna discovers Rose cowering underneath a nearby church pew the next day, she instantaneously decides to help the girl. 

The film falls somewhere between a morality tale and a thriller, with every knock on Joanna's door quickening your pulse. I kept thinking that Joanna could be easily adapted to the stage, as most of the action takes place within the walls of her apartment while she is visited by Germans, neighbors and family. The movie is quiet and slow, relishing shots of Rose as she attempts to console Joanna while the latter slowly crumbles as the myraid pressures on her mount.

Urszula Grabowska offers a compelling turn as the title character, realistic in her portrayal of a woman who sacrifices much of her own life in the hopes of saving another. 

The lexicon of holocaust cinema is both checkered and storied. Joanna strives to investigate elements of morality that can be applied to modern life, avoiding the trap of constantly asking its viewers if they would've had the conviction to do what she did in the same circumstances. Yet, inevitably, any film that uses as its backbone an ordinary person doing heroic things is engaging its audience in this discussion. Joanna makes her choice from the beginning of the film to protect Rose, and weathers the consequences of abuse as a result. The touching moments of Rose and Joanna together following these episodes are meant to somewhat justify the incredible agony Joanna has suffered, but in reality they are bleak confirmation of the small rewards enormous sacrifice can sometimes offer. 

Polish Bar

Polish Bar, the second feature film by director and co-writer Ben Berkowitz, is a modern-day drama set in Chicago. Reuben (Vincent Piazza) is an amateur disk jockey desperate to make his mark on the music scene. In the interim, he spins records at an especially seedy strip club and sells cocaine along with the club's bouncer and a dancer named Ebony (Golden Brooks). In stark contrast to this lifestyle, Reuben also works at a jewelery shop owned by his Uncle Sol, a no-nonsense old-school Jew played brilliantly by Judd Hirsch. The film is a somewhat fractured dual narrative, following Reuben through his nightly exploits and contrasting them against scenes of him with his staunchly traditional Jewish family. 

Director Berkwotiz, in person for the Saturday night screening at the , cheekily referred to his film as "a stripper kreplach with Jewish meat filling." This is an apt description, as most of the film is set at the strip club, while the heart of the movie lies in Reuben's strained relationships with family members such as his stepfather Hershel (Richard Belzer) and orthodox cousin Moises (Dov Tiefenbach). Reuben is constantly at odds with the unspoken disdain his family feels for him as a result of his strained relations with his Jewish roots.

When Sol strong-arms Reuben into letting Moises stay at his apartment, the two engage in some of the more riveting conservations in the film. At one point Reuben angrily expounds on the constant pressures placed upon him to be Jewish, to which Moises responds, "You can't escape - we're everywhere." Why Reuben feels so strongly disconnected from them is never dissected on-screen, but ultimately irrelevant.

What Berkowitz does explore is the idea that Jews make mistakes too. His protagonist peddles cocaine, punches a woman, steals from family and so on. The film isn't out to demonize Jewish people, but rather to humanize them by saying that we are all flawed.

On the note of flaws, Polish Bar has a lack of a positive female figures in the film. Ebony has flashes of growth, but she is ultimately seen as a drug-addict stripper who continually fails her younger brother in support of her habits. The difficulty Reuben's mother has in forgiving her son's indiscretions overshadows any positive attributes she may gain in the course of the movie. The one sorely lacking element was a female character not limited to the single-dimension of "stripper" or "mother." One can conceded that we are perhaps meant to see these characters through Reuben's eyes, but in any case, the very noble intentions of Polish Bar are somewhat deflated by focusing too strongly on faith and leaving gender by the wayside. 


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