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Celebrating two decades of bringing Jewish films to light

Nelly Tagar and Joy Rieger play sisters in “Past Life,” a film directed by Avi Nesher.
Nelly Tagar and Joy Rieger play sisters in “Past Life,” a film directed by Avi Nesher.NCJF

At 41, the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) at Brandeis University is internationally known for archiving, preserving, and restoring films about the Jewish experience. It’s also known for an impressive film festival that turns 20 this year. Running through May 21 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and West Newton Cinema, the festival’s notable offerings include four films anchored by women characters wrestling with how the past informs the present.

“Moon in the 12th House” (May 7, West Newton; May 20, MFA) is director Dorit Hakim’s drama about two sisters (Yuval Scharf and Yaara Pelzig) separated in their youth who meet again as young women and must grapple with the traumatic circumstances that tore them apart.


Sisters are also at the center of director Avi Nesher’s “Past Life” (May 9, West Newton). Set in Israel in 1977, it’s about Stephi (Joy Rieger), an aspiring composer, and her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar), a journalist, as they investigate a life-long mystery about their father’s experiences in Poland during World War II. The film is based on the wartime diaries of Baruch Milch, and the film’s score was composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff, who provided the inspiration for Rieger’s character.

French director Lola Doillon’s drama “Fanny’s Journey” (May 11 and 21 at the MFA) is also fact-based, from the autobiography by Fanny Ben-Ami. It centers on resourceful 13-year old Fanny (Léonie Souchaud) who, in 1943, is sent with her sisters from their home in France to an Italian foster home for Jewish children. When the Nazis arrive in Italy, caretaker Madame Forman (Cécile de France) entrusts 11 children to young Fanny, who leads them on a perilous trek through Nazi-occupied Europe to the Swiss border.

Israeli writer-director Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void” was an audience favorite when it played the festival in 2013, notes Lisa Rivo, NCJF co-director. Burshtein’s follow-up, “The Wedding Plan” (May 14, MFA), is also set in an ultra-Orthodox community as it follows and upends rom-com conventions. When bride-to-be Michal (Noa Koler) is dumped by her fiance a month before their wedding, she decides to keep her wedding date and plans as she goes to increasingly elaborate lengths in her search for a suitably ultra-Orthodox bridegroom.


Other notable entries in this year’s festival include the world premiere of the NCJF’s new digital restoration of the 10-minute, 1931 Yiddish comedy “A Cantor on Trial” (May 7, West Newton) starring the renowned Louis “Leibele” Waldman, the only American-born cantor widely considered among the great cantors in Jewish music.

With “Paradise” (May 10, MFA), director and co-screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky, one of Russian’s most renowned filmmakers, offers an unflinching look at the Holocaust. Shot in luminous black and white, it’s a fictional film that tells the interwoven stories of several characters using narrative and documentary techniques.

The festival screens a 35mm print of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 masterpiece of screwball comedy and political satire, “To Be or Not to Be” (May 16, Coolidge Corner) to commemorate the film’s 75th anniversary. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as husband-and-wife thespians caught up in a dangerous spy plot in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Brandeis professor Thomas Doherty, author of “Hollywood and Hitler,” will lead a post-screening discussion.

For more information, go to www.jewishfilm

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.