Tango Shalom: Lainie Kazan and Renée Taylor co-star in a picture playing this year's San Diego Jewish Film Festival that has "audience favorite" written all over it.
Another week, another film festival — this time, the 31st Annual San Diego International Jewish Film Festival, which runs February 11-21. For a complete lineup of features and virtual discussion groups, visit www.lfjcc.org/cjc/sdijff.aspx. Here are two must-sees and one… well, I suffered, why shouldn’t you?
Tango Shalom (2021)
It’s not often one thinks of rabbis and their wives as amorous entities, but that’s the first thing you’ll notice when Moshe Yehuda (Jos Laniado) and his spouse Raquel (Judi Beecher) are introduced in mid-passionate embrace. (It's a family affair all around: Jos co-wrote the script with brother/co-star Claudio Laniado and co-star Joseph Bologna, the late husband of Renée Taylor. And that's Jos' daughter Justine Laniado playing his onscreen daughter Shira). It’s important to establish a strong, faith-based romantic relationship between the two, because it’s about to be put to the test. With the wolf barking at the door of Moshe’s Hebrew school, the Hasidic rabbi takes to the pavement in search of an alternative way to feed a family of five. Dance instructor Viviana Nieves (Karina Smirnoff) knows that with the right partner — perhaps a Grand Rabbi that has her by a good 20 years and who, by Talmudic law, is not allowed to touch any woman other than his wife — they’d stand a good chance of winning cash prizes on Dance-TV’s first-ever Tango Contest. (Duck! Here comes another trope: her share of the loot would fund an operation for her sick daughter.) Servant of God that he is, Yehuda will stop at nothing to get the answer to his prayers that he wants to hear, and that includes visits to a Catholic priest (that’s Bologna beneath the white Panama), a Muslim imam (Yasir Sitara), and a traveling Sikh mystic (Hamza Zaman) for advice. Rather than risk becoming the topic of Crown Heights chit-chat, Yehuda’s prayers to HaShem are answered in the form of... well, you'll have to see the movie to discover what came between the dancers that prevented them from touching. He soon becomes a shanda, the eyes of God (and internet subscribers) waiting for him to do anything even remotely “unholy.” The opening nasal salvos lobbed between Moshe’s blubbering mother Deborah (Renée Taylor) and her equally adenoidal in-law-to-be Leah (Lainie Kazan) were pushing things in the direction of Sitcom City, but once the characters took hold and the direction picked up its pace, there was a good, non-denominational time to be had by all. This was to be the last collaboration between a prolific husband and wife quadruple-threat duo: the writing, acting, producing, and directing team of Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna (Lovers and Other Strangers, Made for Each Other). Mr. Bologna passed away in the Autumn of 2017 at the age of 82. The director is another Bologna: Joe and Renée’s son Gabriel. The film just took home the Best Comedy and Best Lead Actor awards at the Montreal Independent Film Festival. Mazel Tov! 2021. S.M. ★★★
Shared Legacies (2020)
“It’s not about comparing scars,” says Rabbi Capers Funnye, his thought completed moments later by Dr. Michael Berenbaum’s, “It doesn’t mean the Holocaust doesn’t have something to say about slavery and slavery doesn’t have something to say about the Holocaust. Both of them have something to say about suffering.” You couldn’t prove it by my Hebrew school teacher, Rabbi Sol Lerner, who, in 1966, escorted his class to Chicago’s Roosevelt Theatre — a downtown picture palace that took up an entire city block — to attend a performance of the 10-year anniversary reissue of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. As early as age 11, my mind associated the term slavery with African-Americans, but it wasn’t until that Passover week matinee when I began to realize that Jews were once considered human chattel. “Were Jewish slaves like black slaves?” I asked Rabbi Lerner while waiting for the northbound Howard “L” train to arrive. “No!” he answered in tones that incited an instant change of subject. “We had it worse.” It had been a long time since this “L” platform pissing contest returned to mind; it might never have come back were it not for Peter Yarrow’s aide-memoire, “Pharaoh enslaved the Jews.” Writer-director Shari Rogers’ documentary takes us through a concise history of the century-old coming together of African-American and Jewish communities. The coalition came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, as many witnesses will attest, but the relationship has remained stagnant over the past 30 years. The film’s prevailing voice of reason, the one that stayed with me after the film ended, belongs to Yavilah McCoy, an African-American advocate for Jews of color. “Jews believe in meritocracy,” she asserts — the notion that people get ahead in life through demonstrated abilities and merit.” She continues, “There is no narrative that advances the story of Civil Rights... Blacks and Jews, now more than ever, need to carry each other’s story in mind, heart, and spirit.” This powerful tale acts as a reminder of a friendship that, now more than ever, must endure. ★★★
The Crossing (2020)
The reason Daniel (Samson Steine) and younger sister Sarah (Bianca Ghilardi-Hellsten) are seeking shelter in the home of Gerda (Anna Sofie Skarholt) and Otto’s (Bo Lindquist-Ellingsen) parents is dispensed with before the opening credits close: it wasn’t safe for Jews of any age to be living in occupied Norway in 1942. As explained in director Johanne Helgeland’s maiden feature, mean old Mr. Hitler and the Nazis punished people for no reason, so in the time it took for the adults to plan their escape route to Sweden, Daniel and Sarah took up residence within the walls of the gentile family’s cellar. And when the Jewish-sympathizing parents are arrested, Gerda takes it upon herself to escort the children to safety. She is reluctantly joined by sloe-eyed (and even slower-witted) Otto (think Larry Mondello of Leave it to Beaver fame), who just that afternoon attended his first Hitler Youth rally. If it all sounds a tad remedial, it should: this is a G-rated family picture aimed at introducing the concept of Nazi atrocities to impressionable minds. It’s what a live-action Nazi adventure for the entire family would have felt like if, in the early ‘60s, Disney had had the audacity to tackle the incredible journey. (The quartet looking on as children are forcibly taken from their mothers’ arms is about as brutal as it gets.) When Otto questions the benefit of giving aid to Jews, even the least hip toddler in the bunch is bound to smart when hit with the ear-cud-chewed-thoroughly reply, “They’re people. We’re people. People help people.” And don’t Hitler’s henchmen have better ways to spend their time than being outfoxed by a band of kids? Two German Shepherds overseen by five uniformed Nazis and one 4K camera drone, and still they can’t bring four refugee children to their knees? Beware: your children may question why mommy and daddy were snickering during this variation on A Child’s Berchtesgaden of Verses. ★