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In the black-and-white opening of Forgiveness, a small, frightened girl runs through a foggy forest, with dogs barking ominously in the distance.
In the next scene, in color, a fashionably dressed American woman visits a cemetery and stops before a tombstone with a Star of David, inscribed with the name Esther Horn Blumenfeld.
What is the connection? The viewer has to be patient, for Forgiveness is like a complex jigsaw puzzle or murder mystery in which apparently disconnected pieces fall into place only gradually.
For those looking for a movie dominated by strong, independent women, this is the one to see. The two men present are defined only by their relationships, one supportive, the other unfaithful, to the women.
The story line is both complex and easily spoiled by hints to future viewers. In broad strokes, the chief protagonists are two professional women, Sara (Sydney Barrosse), a tall, blonde architect, and Maria (Shelly Calene-Black), a petite brunette academic and radio show counselor.
Though they appear successful (Sara's apartment, especially, looks like something straight out of Vogue), they are each haunted by their pasts, or, rather, their respective mother's past.
Maria's mother is Catholic and lives, perpetually disgruntled, in a retirement home. Sara's mother was Jewish and died recently. Both mothers lived in Poland during World War II, then immigrated to the United States, but never talked to their daughters about their childhood experiences during the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust.
Sara has discovered a diary left behind by her mother, is distraught by what she finds, and wanders into a lecture given by Maria, which explores such themes of coping with the death of a loved one and forgiveness.
That's as far as we can go, but though the film has a compelling plot line, its real strength lies in weaving the relationships among its female characters.
The bond between two adult, self-confident women has rarely been portrayed as effectively, but it is the hate-love relationship between Maria and her mother (Julie Erickson in a heart-wrenching performance) that gives the film its powerful emotional impact.
DIRECTED AND written by Poland's Mariusz Kotowski, Forgiveness is one of 47 presentations at the April 25-May 4 Polish Film Festival in Los Angeles. Taking a leaf from the successful local Jewish and Israel film festivals, executive director Vladek Juszkiewicz has been expanding the program and reaching out to wider audiences.
Customarily, he includes some Jewish-themed films, partly because, according to his estimates, there are some 5,000 Polish-speaking Jews in the Los Angeles area, many of who left Poland during the stormy years of 1956 and 1968, in addition to some 150,000-200,000 Polish Catholics.
Inevitably, many of the films deal, in one way or another, with the Holocaust era, but, said Juszkiewicz, the themes go beyond the extermination of Poland's Jews.
"Anything that deals with Polish society or Polish history touches on the relationship between the country's Catholics and Jews," he said.
This year, besides Forgiveness, there are seven features and documentaries of special Jewish interest. Among them are The Eagle Pharmacy, about a pharmacist, the only Pole residing in the Warsaw ghetto, and Unforgettable Past, which portrays four elderly Polish Jews in Israel, recalling their youthful years.