‘The Rabbi Goes West’ in SLIFF’s Jewish-oriented films

“The Rabbi Goes West”

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The St. Louis International Film Festival, presented annually by Cinema St. Louis, runs from Thursday through Nov. 22, meaning it overlaps with both the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival (Nov. 1-8) and the Jewish Film Festival (Nov. 9-15). But because the three festivals are virtual this year, it is possible to attend all of them from the comfort of your own home. 

SLIFF annually features a set of Israeli or Jewish-interest films from around the world, including documentaries, narrative features and short subjects. Among them this year are seven narrative feature films and three documentaries, plus a shorts program. Some films are available for the whole run of the festival, while others are  available only for a limited time 

“As usual, SLIFF features a diverse array of films that address Jewish-related subjects,” said Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis. “We’re especially pleased to feature ‘The Rabbi Goes West,’ which provides a very unusual take on Hasidic Judaism in a very unlikely location: Montana. That documentary is co-directed by Gerald Peary, a two-time alum of the fest, and Amy Geller, who’s artistic director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.”

“The Rabbi Goes West,” available for the full run of the festival as well as a free event, takes a look at the 2,000-plus Jewish families in sparsely populated Montana and how those families, Reform and Conservative, react to the arrival in Bozeman of a Hasidic rabbi from Brooklyn, N.Y. 

The rabbi, Chaim Bruk, is a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who is seeking to expand its reach into the Big Sky state. Bruk is a likable fellow with a good sense of humor who organizes events like a “Scotch and Sushi” Sukkot celebration at, of all places, a shooting range, but his mission is met with some skepticism by Montana Jews. Peary and Geller take a neutral, balanced view and add a dose of wry humor in this engrossing, well-made documentary. 

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“God of the Piano” is an Israeli drama from director Itay Tal about  Anat (Naama Preis), a musician who never lived up to the expectations of her gifted pianist father. Now the family’s hope for a musical prodigy rests on her unborn son, but those expectations are upended when the boy is born deaf. 

In this chilling drama, Anat goes to extremes to try to turn the boy into a composer to fulfill her father’s wishes. Pries won the Jerusalem Film Festival best actress award for her stunning performance in this powerful film.

Some of best films in this year’s SLIFF are available for a limited portion of the festival. Among them is the Italian feature “Thou Shalt Not Hate” (available Nov. 20-22) directed by Mauro Mancini. It tells the story of a doctor, the son of a Shoah survivor, who goes to help a traffic accident victim but pulls back when he discovers a Nazi tattoo. As the doctor, Alessandro Gassmann, has won high praise, as has this complex, multilayered film.

Another strong film is the Israeli/Italian dramedy “Here We Are” (available Nov. 13-15) directed by Nir Bergman, in which a father and his autistic adult son go on the road. It played Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival and was nominated for nine Orphir awards, the Israeli Oscar.

Other films available for entire festival include the German documentary “The Lesson,” which follows some German school children as they are taught about the Nazi era and the Shoah in school. These lessons are intended to prevent history repeating, but some disturbing results surface as far-right extremism is on the rise. It is shown with two short films, “Zaida,” in which a filmmaker spotlights her Shoah-survivor grandfather who is a renowned psychoanalyst, and “Colette,” in which a 90-year-old woman recalls her childhood as a member of the French Resistance. 

The American historical drama “My Name is Sara,” is a family film based on the true story of a 13-year-old Polish-Jewish girl who eluded the Nazis after they killed her family by adopting the identity of a non-Jewish friend and hiding with a Ukrainian farmer’s family. 

Also running the length of the festival is the short subjects program “Doc Shorts: Life Animated,” which includes three Jewish-interest short films. 

Other Jewish-interest films with limited runs include the Norwegian family film “The Crossing” (Nov. 6-8), a historic drama in which Norwegian siblings help a pair of Jewish children escape the Nazis. The Israeli documentary “And I Was There” (Nov. 15-22) was sparked after director Eran Paz discovered videotapes from 18 years earlier, when he and other young Israeli soldiers in his squad held rave parties in Palestinian homes after locking up the families in another room.

“The Sign Painter” (Nov. 13-15) is a Czech/Latvian tragicomedy about a young man whose dreams of becoming an artist and marrying the daughter of a local Jewish merchant are repeatedly derailed by successive waves of totalitarian rule.  

“Asia” (Nov. 6-8) is an Israeli drama, directed by Ruthy Pribar, which played the Tribeca Film Festival, that is a double character study of a Russian immigrant mother and her ailing teenage daughter, a film that has been compared with the unflinching French drama “Amour.”