To paraphrase the old commercial for Levy’s rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to love the Boston Jewish Film Festival. What’s unusual about the event — even more so now that it’s under the guiding hands of executive director Jaymie Saks and artistic director Amy Geller — is the festival’s eclecticism. Some of the films in this silver-anniversary edition barely brush up against Judaism while others dig deep into its meanings, history, and modern discontents. Some entertain, while others confront. At their best, these films provide a prism on not just what it means to be Jewish, but what it means to be human. Time constraints prevented this critic from seeing all of the scheduled movies, but here’s a five-film sample of what’s in store.
THE ZIGZAG KID The BJFF’s opening night presentation is a family film, one that’s clever and heartfelt enough to engage parents, grandparents, possibly even surly teens. A Dutch-made adventure that fuses aspects of “Hugo” and “Emil and the Detectives,” it’s about a boy named Nono (the appealing Thomas Simon), his dashing police-inspector dad (Fedja van Huet), and the mystery of the kid’s mother. An arch-villain named Felix Blick (Burghart Klaussner) — who’s maybe not as villainous as he seems — and an aging but still glamorous chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini) figure in the mayhem, which dashes around Western Europe while diving into the past. The comedy is at times delightful (how many people’s parents met cute in a vat of chocolate?) and the emotions surprisingly affecting. A couple of cursory bar mitzvah scenes are probably what got “The Zigzag Kid” into this festival, and you should be glad they did. (Wednesday, Coolidge Corner)
BLUMENTHAL It’s like an early Philip Roth novel set in modern Manhattan. Writer-director Seth Fisher also stars as Ethan, a nice, conflicted, secular Jewish boy whose Asian-American girlfriend may be pregnant, whose celebrated playwright uncle (Brian Cox) just died laughing at his own joke, whose father (Mark Blum) is in a depressive funk, and whose shiksa stepmother (Laila Robins) is thinking about having an affair with her gay dogwalker. In other words, your basic state of assimilated American Jewry in the 21st century. Not all of Fisher’s debut feature works, but when it does the results are lacerating, hilarious, and surprisingly forgiving. (Saturday, Coolidge; Nov. 14, Capitol)
EL GUSTO A documentary that bears comparison with “Buena Vista Social Club” but with added layers of historical conflict. Several years ago, filmmaker Safinez Bousbia bought a mirror from an Algerian shopkeeper, Mohamad Ferkioui, who turned out to be a retired musician. The more she heard about his past and the men with whom he had played — Arabs and Jews collaborating on the rootsy Casbah music known as Chabbi — the more she wanted to get them back together. “El Gusto” becomes a story of artists surfing waves of calamitous events (the Algerian War, the postwar exile of Algerian Jews) and always circling back to their art. The movie adds up to a stirring portrait of philosopher-survivors, and the music soars. (Nov. 17, Museum of Fine Arts)
UNORTHODOX What happens to children raised Orthodox when they hit their rebellious years? What happens after that? Filmmaker Anna Wexler (raised Modern Orthodox, went atheist) and her co-director Nadja Oertelt (raised secular) met at MIT and joined forces for this remarkable documentary. “Unorthodox” follows three American Jewish teenagers, all pushing hard against their upbringing, who travel to Israel for a year. Will they “flip out” and turn religious, as many of Wexler’s former party pals have? Or will they broker their own agreements between conservative tradition and youthful idealism? Whenever you think you know where this movie is going, it surprises you — and the filmmakers. Many of the BJFF entries look to the past of Judaism. This is one of the few to stare hard into the future. (Next Sunday, Institute of Contemporary Art)
TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS And now for something completely meshugeneh. This compilation of sketches from the legendary Sid Caeser comedy show — a precursor of “Saturday Night Live,” it ran from 1950 to 1954 on NBC — was a revelation when it was released to theaters in 1973 and remains mind-crampingly funny today. The regular cast included lunatic pixie Imogene Coca, manic Howard Morris, and a spry young Carl Reiner, but it’s Caesar himself — hulking, rubber-faced, absurdly hostile — who raises the skits to the level of vaudeville art. Worth it for the “This is Your Life” parody alone, “Ten From Your Show of Shows” is testimony to the deep and lasting influence of Jewish humor on American comedy, and it matters that a couple of kids named Mel Brooks and Neil Simon worked on the writing staff. If that’s too downmarket for you, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky will introduce the film. (Nov. 11, Brattle)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jaymie Saks’s name, as well as the rootsy Casbah music known as Chabbi.