For 12 years, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has programmed movies about Jewish life and culture, yet despite that potential restriction, the event projects a global inclusiveness. Of the 70 narrative and documentary films at this year's festival, a significant majority come from other countries, including France, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Israel.
In something of an exception that proves the rule, one of the festival's best films is actually American, although it's heavily subtitled. Judy Lieff's documentary Deaf Jam (4 out of 5 stars; Feb. 12, 2:10 p.m. at Atlantic Station and 4:50 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs) will introduce most audiences to the concept of American Sign Language poetry — signing so exuberant that it seems to draw on elements of pantomime and hip-hop hand gestures. Deaf Jam takes place from the perspective of teenage Aneta Brodski, an Israeli immigrant from a deaf family who passionately embraces the expressiveness of ASL poetry.
Deaf Jam follows Aneta over her junior and senior years of high school as she cultivates her talent for ASL poetry while grappling with the concerns of an average teenager: what will she do when her friends go off to college? Will she be able to get a job in the real world? Lieff provides snapshots of hot-button issues in the deaf community, like the educational tensions between sign language and "oralism's" emphasis on lip-reading. Passionate in her identity as a deaf person, Aneta doesn't particularly want to hear, but feels frustrated that so few "hearing people" understand ASL.
The documentary takes an intriguing twist when Aneta meets Tahani, a Palestinian slam poet, and the two teenage girls decide to collaborate on a performance that combines verbal and ASL performance to bridge gaps between multiple cultures. Aneta makes such an enthusiastic, arresting protagonist, you could watch her sign the phone book.
The festival presents so many Holocaust-themed movies that they threaten to become clichéd, but the opening night film, My Best Enemy (3 out of 5 stars; 7:30 p.m., Feb. 8, Fox Theatre) contains some engaging and unexpected twists. In Vienna of 1938, Jewish Victor Kaufmann (Moritz Bleibtreu) is dismayed when his lifelong friend Rudi Smekal (Georg Friedrich) becomes a Nazi officer. The son of the Kaufmann's landlady, Rudi resents the wealthy, sophisticated family and betrays them when he learns that Victor's father, a gallery owner, possesses a long-lost, 400-year-old drawing by Michelangelo.
Fate conspires to have Rudi and the imprisoned Victor shot down in the same aircraft, so Victor dares to impersonate his former friend. My Best Enemy's downbeat first act sets up a lively, at times comic premise with Victor passing as a Nazi, reminiscent of scenes in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Jack Benny's To Be or Not to Be. Bleibtreu's excellent performance conveys Victor's inner anxiety while he puts on an authoritarian front. At one point the film implies that Victor, having grown up privileged, more convincingly projects the Nazi sense of entitlement than Rudi.
From the same producer team as the 2008 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner The Counterfeiters, My Best Enemy at times has an unpersuasive, low-budget look that telegraphs the artificiality of a film production. But perhaps the filmmakers were concerned that a film that too realistically captured of the Holocaust would undermine My Best Enemy's scenes of con-man cleverness.
The low-key Israeli drama Restoration (3 out of 5 stars; Feb. 9, 7:35 p.m., Atlantic Station; Feb. 19, 1:45 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs; Feb. 25, 8 p.m., GTC Merchant's Walk; Feb. 27, 7:40 p.m. United Artists Tara) features a subplot about a broken-down old piano that might be a prized Steinway. The film stars Sasson Gabai as Yaakov Fidelman, an aging restorer of antique furniture who discovers that his Tel-Aviv shop is near bankruptcy after the death of his partner.
A stoic perfectionist at his craft, Yaakov struggles to connect with people in the absence of his gregarious associate. Yaakov's son Noah, an ambitious lawyer, proves ambivalent about supporting his father in a failing business. Yaakov's handsome, enigmatic assistant Anton proves more loyal than the restorer's own flesh and blood. Meanwhile, a mutual attraction develops between Anton and Noah's very pregnant wife, Hava.
Gabai gives a minimal yet powerful performance that conveys Yaakov's anguished inner life while remaining nearly impassive. Winner of the dramatic screenwriting award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Restoration's restrained approach inhibits the film from reaching the most satisfying payoff, but its assertion of family ties over self-interest feels emotionally truthful, and none of the filmmaker's insights into the pressures on human relationships become lost in translation.
Finally, Israeli moviegoers lined up to make This is Sodom (2 out of 5 stars; Feb. 10, 2:40 p.m., Atlantic Station; Feb. 13, 9:05 p.m., Lefont Sandy Springs; Feb. 23, 9:15 p.m., Merchant's Walk; and Feb. 24, 2:20 p.m., United Artists Tara) one of the biggest hits in the country's history. A Biblical spoof along the lines of Monty Python's Life of Brian and Mel Brooks' A History of the World Part 1, This is Sodom revisits one of the most lurid and spectacular tales of the Old Testament for an audience used to irony and reality television.
An amusing premise depicts God as a young salesman trying to get Abraham to sign onto the new religion: "Is there a membership fee?" "No, you'll just have to kill your kid." "OK, but no membership fee." To sweeten the deal, God offers to rescue Lot (Dov Navon), a righteous but dim-witted man, before He destroys the wicked city of Sodom. The King of Sodom (Eli Finish) gets wind of the apocalyptic plan and schemes to take Lot's place.
Starring the cast of the Israeli comedy troupe Eretz Nehederet, This is Sodom presents a sharp diversity of talent. Finish makes the preening Mayor of Sodom into a creation reminiscent of a Sacha Baron Cohen character, while Tal Friedman, in drag, merely grates your nerves as Lot's wife. Too often the troupe commits to weak puns and weary running jokes, but This is Sodom also features some divinely inspired gags, including a "stretch camel" that pulls up to a fancy wedding. Despite the title, This is Sodom, the comedy tends to be bawdy but not embarrassingly explicit, so you needn't worry about being struck by lightning while watching it.
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