(photo credit: Courtesy)
Directed by Amos Gitai. Written by Gitai, Dan Franck and Marie-Jose Sanselme. Based on a novel by Jerome Clements. 90 minutes. Hebrew title: Meuhar Yoter. In French, some prints have Hebrew and English titles.
Directed by Amos Gitai. Written by Gitai and Marie-Jose Sanselme. 115 minutes. Hebrew title: Hitnatkut. In Hebrew and French, with Hebrew and English titles.
Amos Gitai is Israel's most celebrated filmmaker abroad, showing his films in the main competition at Cannes and other prestigious festivals. The French, in particular, have always appreciated Gitai's left-wing sensibility and often pretentious approach. Like many Israeli critics, I have longed to see a movie of his that actually lived up to the hype from abroad and am pleasantly surprised to report that there finally is one.
Later, a French-language film set in Paris, starring the legendary Jeanne Moreau (whose passionate performance helped make Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim into the classic it is). The release of Later has been timed to coincide with the opening of Gitai's previous film, Disengagement (2007). Set in Paris and Israel during the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, it's a typical example of the muddled storytelling, clumsy direction and general disregard for filmmaking fundamentals that have marred much of his work.
On the other hand, Later is a moving look at how the shadow of the Holocaust affects the lives of a family all the way to the present. The film opens with two people listening to the 1980s Klaus Barbie trial on the radio: Rivka (Moreau), a soignÃ©e Parisian widow, cooking in her apartment, and Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), her son, a high-ranking public official who ignores his work to sort through his parents' papers from WWII.
He discovers a letter by his father declaring himself an Aryan and his wife of an impure bloodline. He confronts his mother about its meaning but she puts him off, diverting the conversation to food or art she wants to buy. It's a game he doesn't have the heart for.
As he delves deeper into the paper trail, he discovers that his maternal grandparents perished in Auschwitz. He recalls to his wife, who tries to understand his obsession with his family secrets, he recalls how his mother took him to have tea every week at her parents' old flat where other relatives had moved after the war - never once referring to her parents' fate.
The basic story of how a family copes with a secret like this is something we've seen before. But Jeanne Moreau gives a great performance as a woman who only wants to maintain the pretense of her life because she's terrified of what lies any deeper. This role could be clichÃ©, but Moreau infuses it with a kind of nobility and gives real insight into such a life choice.
Many assimilated French Jews have tried to carry on as if nothing happened. They live their lives on the same streets where they saw friends deported and where their neighbors reported on them to the police. More than any other Jewish community, assimilated French Jews seem to have a striking ability to compartmentalize and put the past behind them. But, of course, there is much they feel that they don't speak about. Later is masterful in how it probes the cracks in this faÃ§ade.
The film still suffers from some of Gitai's mannerisms, such as overly complex camerawork that is generally more distracting than effective and storytelling glitches in which some of the most significant moments take place off camera. But, Moreau's brilliant performance and Girardot's low-key but effective work push these problems into the background.
There is nothing that causes the problems in Disengagement to fade away. Liron Levo stars as Uli, an Israeli who returns to Paris after his French father dies. There, he reconnects with his France-raised half-sister Ana (Juliette Binoche), a hysterical woman who complains constantly and strips naked to try to seduce her half-sibling. One of her complaints is having given up a baby for adoption in Israel and Uli agrees to help her track down the girl.
This symbolic infant is now a young woman living in Gush Katif. It is the eve of the disengagement but they sneak in and find her. Dana (Dana Ivgy), with whom Ana has a reunion, doesn't say much about the disengagement, the characters or anything else. The normally sexy and lively Levo is tight-lipped and expressionless. The most shocking thing about this entire film is how unappealing it makes the glorious Binoche. The disengagement was an issue that polarized Israel and aroused passionate responses on both sides, but you wouldn't have a clue as to why after seeing this irrelevant mess of a movie.