Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
NYJFF ’14: Friends from France
a matter of policy, the Soviets automatically denied all requests from the
so-called “Refuseniks” to immigrate to Israel, often spuriously claiming they
were irreplaceable specialists (who were then duly fired from their
positions). As it happens, Victor Rybak
really is a highly respected authority in the field of physics, much like
Sakharov. His uphill battle to join his
wife in Israel will profoundly affect two young French cousins in Anne Weil
& Philippe Kotlarski’s Friends from
opening night selection of the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented
by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Brikerman is a passionate Zionist, who supports the Refuseniks’ aspirations for
Israel. Jérôme Berkowitz is passionate
about his cousin Brikerman. Despite his mixed feelings, Berkowitz joins his
cousin on a leftist guided tour of Odessa.
Pretending to be newlyweds, they will secretly visit Jewish dissidents,
bringing smuggled care packages and offering moral support. Berkowitz resents what he considers Brikerman’s
Zionist proselytizing, while struggling with his arousal from their intimate
proximity. However, when they pay a call
on Rybak, Berokwitz meets someone far more cynical than himself.
has good reason to be jaded. He endured constant
torture in a Communist mental hospital, intended to force him to denounce his
beloved wife, who had successfully reached Israel ahead of him. While imprisoned,
he secretly maintained a diary. Not only
did he document the systemized abuse and summary executions, he also included
deeply personal passages of erotic longing, meant solely for her eyes.
in translated subtitles, the words of Rybak’s diary ring with truth and poetry. They are easily the most compelling element of
Weil & Kotlarski’s screenplay. It is
easy to understand why Brikerman’s network would want to publish it and why the
Soviets would be determined to prevent such an embarrassment. They also open a
deep window into the Refusenik physicist’s soul. For all his exterior gruffness, Rybak is a
haunted romantic at heart.
Fridman is simply extraordinary as Rybak.
It is an acutely human and humane portrayal, conveying all his messy
complications and understandable bitterness.
It is only January, but Fridman’s work should be noted for year-end
lists. He instills Friends with power
and integrity whenever he is on-screen.
contrast, Soko and Jérémie Lippmann simply are not in the same league. Still, much like his character, Lippmann slowly
sneaks up on viewers, developing a distinct presence and persona down the
stretch. Evidently, Soko is France’s
current “It Girl,” so it is nice she wants to appear in a film like this. At least she is more engaging than in the
grossly over-rated Augustine. She does not undermine any of the
proceedings, but it is hard to see her in the way other characters do.
Weil & Kotlarski vividly capture oppressive
vibe of Communist era Odessa. At times Friends functions as a surprisingly good
Cold War thriller. It probably holds some sort of distinction as a film noticeably
critical of both the Soviet Union and the Zionist movement. Yet, its sharpest, most illuminating
observations involve the hypocrisy of the leftwing tourists. Ostensibly on a personal mission of solidarity,
they are clearly fearful of the Party’s apparatus of control—with very good
reason. Smart, literate, and sometimes
quite moving, Friends from France is
a strong way to open this year’s NYJFF.
Highly recommended, it screens twice this coming Wednesday (1/8) at the
Walter Reade Theater.
Labels: NYJFF '14, Refusenik