Chicago-born director Ed Zwick cast Denzel Washington in his first Oscar-winning role (in the 1989 film Glory), and he also cast Ken Watanabe (Oscar-nominated for The Last Samurai in 2003) and Djimon Hounsou (Oscar-nominated for Blood Diamond in 2006). So he’s a mensch, but with the exception of his award-winning TV series thirtysomething (starring Ken Olin as “Michael Steadman” and Melanie Mayron as his cousin “Melissa”), Jews have never been his central characters.
In Zwick’s new film Defiance, however, almost all the characters are Jewish, especially the three lead characters: Asael, Tuvia, and Zus Bielski. The Bielski brothers grew up in a remote village in rural Belarus, and they were as blind-sided as all their neighbors when the Germans invaded in 1941. But they quickly sized up the situation, escaped into the forest, and spent the next three years serving as Soviet partisans while simultaneously saving over one thousand Jews.
“There were Jews who resisted the Nazis all over Europe, but this was the only organized group of Jews that rescued other Jews, and this was the most powerful and the most famous group,” screenwriter Clay Frohman told me when I called him in LA. “Old people, children, women, they all would have died without the Bielski brothers.” (See sidebar.)
This subject might not seem appropriate for your typical American multiplex, but after seeing Defiance twice, reading three source books, and chatting with Clay, it’s clear to me that Zwick has done a superb job of crafting a film for everyone, a film with heroic action as well as moral discourse, breathtaking escapes punctuated by genuine romantic interludes. Thoroughly adept at his craft, Zwick has used his artistic license to find the deepest possible truth beneath the facts. For example, Asael was really the middle brother and Zus was the youngest, but from everything I’ve read, they actually functioned just as shown, a historically significant instance of a whole that became greater than the sum of its parts. Bravo!
Defiance opens here in Chicago on January 16. Reviews of more current films with Jewish themes/content are posted in the “Columns” section of my website: http://www.films42.com/columns/JUFN-5769.asp
BOOKS & AUTHORS
In my August ’07 column, I wrote about Nathan Englander’s visit to promote his newly-published novel The Ministry of Special Cases. Ministry was recently released in paperback, and on Tuesday, January 13, Rabbi Victor Mirelman of West Suburban Temple Har Zion (a leading expert in the history of Jews in Argentina) will lead a lunchtime discussion as part of Spertus Institute’s “Jewish Book Club” series.
The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Buenos Aires during the darkest days of the “Dirty War” (1976-1983), when thousands of Argentine citizens–a disproportionate number of whom were Jewish–disappeared. “Part of what interested me about this story was the not knowing of it,” Englander told me in ‘07. “How is it that we Americans don’t know this story? I was given the Holocaust: ‘never forget.’ But I didn’t know, as I was being taught the Holocaust story, that there was a totalitarian regime in my hemisphere, in my lifetime. This was going on, and we were looking away. It’s always interesting: what people want to know and what they don’t want to know… The madness of this book is me toning down a reality that was far madder.”
To read excerpts from The Ministry of Special Cases, visit: www.nathanenglander.com
On Sunday, January 25, Ariel Sabar will be at Spertus to read from his new book My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. Sabar’s father was born in Zakho, an ancient town in northern Iraq where Jews had lived quietly for generations that dated back even before Roman times. But life in this community came to a violent end soon after 1948, when Arab nationalism manifested itself as rage against peaceful Jewish neighbors who, much to their own surprise, suddenly had few safe choices other than emigration to Israel.
Regular readers already know that I am extremely interested in Israel’s Mizrachi population, and I learned a great deal from Sabar’s book. It’s an engrossing, easy read; Sabar uses his journalistic skills to build a solid historical foundation, then he digs deep into his own imagination to recreate realistic conversations between people long gone.
For complete program details, visit the calendar page of the Spertus website: www.spertus.edu.
TZIVI’S DVD COLLECTION
In my April ’08 column, I wrote about My Mexican Shivah (Morirse esta en Hebreo), a wonderful film that received an Audience Choice Award at our 24th Chicago Latino Film Festival last year. When I met with director Alejandro Springall the day after the CLFF screening, he told me Shiva was scheduled for theatrical release “sometime in the Fall,” but apparently it only opened in New York. Thankfully it is now available on DVD, and people have told me they’ve also watched it on On Demand.
My Mexican Shivah is an artful blend of farce and philosophy. People come to patriarch Moishe Szelewiansky’s funeral obsessed with private problems, but as the yahrzeit candle melts away, immersion in Jewish ritual has a purifying effect. Most of the dialogue is in Spanish, but all of the prayers (which are numerous) are in Hebrew, and two elderly Hassids function as a Yiddish-speaking “Greek chorus.” Shivah has an enormous cast, every member of which is imbued with felt life. Even as the final credits begin to roll, it’s easy to believe that the characters we’ve met on this journey, major and minor alike, all have arcs that will continue on, even though we won’t be watching. That’s our loss!
Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com. Visit www.juf.org for online copies of prior columns.