Saturday, December 1, 2012

Four Neglected Gems (#30-33): The Last Letter (2002), Like a Bride (1993), Shake Hands with the Devil (2007) & The Emperor's Club (2002)

Frederick Wiseman's The Last Letter
As we get into the winter and holiday season, there's no better time to gather indoors to catch up with movies we may have missed. In this case, Shlomo Schwartzberg suggests four films we may not even know.

- editors of Critics at Large.

The Last Letter (La dernière lettre) (2002) is the only fiction film by famed documentairan Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, La Danse) is not really a stretch for the talented filmmaker since it feels just as authentic as anything he's ever done. First staged by Wiseman with France's acclaimed Comedie-Francaise, it has now been brought to the screen with all its devastating power intact.

Sole cast member Catherine Samie plays a Jewish doctor locked up in an Ukrainian ghetto which is facing liquidation by the Nazis. Her last letter is being written to her son, who is safely out of harm's way, and in it, she tells him of her recent experiences and of her deep love for him. Seemingly simple, The Last Letter is actually deeply layered, with Samie's complex character going through myriad emotions as she ponders – and accepts – her mortality. Filmed in evocative black and white, often with close ups of Samie's face and hands and the ghostly shadows she casts behind her, The Last Letter, though only an hour long, is poignantly effective.

Like a Bride

The thriving experience of Mexican Jewry is lovingly detailed in 1997's Like a Bride (Novia Que Te Vea), a delicate and subtle drama based on Rosa Nissan's novel. The film, which won five Ariel awards (Mexico’s top honours), follows the friendship in 1960s Mexico City of two young girls, Oshinica (Claudette Maille) and Rifke (Maya Mishalska). Oshinica comes from a conservative Sephardic family that traces its lineage to Spain before the Jews were expelled from that country. Rifke's parents are more liberal Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jews driven from the continent by the Holocaust. 

Together, the two friends attend Zionist day camps, dabble in Marxist politics, fall in love (not always within their own community) and try to reconcile familial expectations with their own budding wishes to live life to the fullest. Familiar Jewish themes of assimilation versus tradition are filtered through a fresh perspective, resulting in a film that reverberates in a unique way, greatly aided by Guita Schyfter's light, effective direction and the poignant, touching performances of the young leads.

Peter Raymont's Shake Hands with the Devil

The deserved winner of the Audience Best Documentary award at Sundance, Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey Of Romeo Dallaire (2004) devastatingly revisits the 1994 Rwanda genocide of more than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, through the eyes of the Canadian Lieutenant General who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to save them. Heading up a United Nations peacekeeping force, Romeo Dallaire quickly found out that he was neither allowed nor expected to do anything to stave off the imminent massacres of the Tutsis and moderate Hutus who refused to participate in the killings. Despite warnings that something horrible was going to happen, the U.N. and the Western world refused to act and, when the murders started, were only interested in saving their own expatriates. Dallaire, however, could not accept that, and did everything possible to rescue as many Rwandans as he could, despite the many obstacles put in his path. Upon returning home, guilt-ridden because he could not do more, he descended into alcoholic episodes and psychological torment before writing a book-Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda-and going public with his story, which helped cure him of his ills.

Peter Raymont's film takes off from those facts and accompanies Dallaire as he returns to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide and reacquaints himself with the people and places of that horrible time. It's a highly moving film and also an angry one, as Dallaire bitterly indicts the U.N. and countries such as Belgium and France for their culpability in the genocide. Articulate, forthright and strong-minded, he emerges as a genuine hero who, nonetheless, didn't see what he did as heroic and still carries the emotional scars of his mission. Dallaire, who was the loose basis for Nick Nolte's character in the powerful feature film Hotel Rwanda (2004), brings the horror home while reminding us that, as in Darfur, it's beginning to happen again. Shake Hands with the Devil is as timely as movies get. But don’t bother with the 2007 Canadian feature film of the same name. It’s a pallid production, starring a wan Roy Dupuis, that fails to do justice to Dallare’s life and acts.

The Emperor's Club
Most films about teachers usually tread one of two well-worn paths. They either focus on a battle of wills between a dedicated teacher and a recalcitrant student, with the teacher eventually winning the fight, or they chronicle the educator's reaching out to and inspiring a group of indifferent students, who learn to rise to their highest potential. While containing elements of both those scenarios, The Emperor's Club (2002), which is directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Neil Tolkin and Ethan Canin (from Canin’s short story The Palace Thief), is different. It's a flawed but fascinating drama that never goes where you expect. It starts with retired teacher William Hundert (Kevin Kline) arriving at a former student's home and being informed that he's going to be honored with a dinner. Flash back 25 years with said student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), in Hundert's class on Greek and Roman classics. A spoiled kid, Bell doesn't give a damn about history and tests Hundert's mettle at very turn. Undeterred, Hundert reaches out to him, and soon enough Bell responds and vies for the crown of Mr. Julius Caesar, awarded to the student who can answer the most queries about Roman history. Hundert, however, is so desperate for Bell to succeed that he commits an unethical act to ensure the outcome he wants, which costs him dearly.

Uniquely, The Emperor's Club, which also stars Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Paul Dano (There Will be Blood), actually gets at a truth that most films about teachers omit. It recognizes that an educator's genuine wish to touch his students can co-exist with an arrogance that can never admit failure in that regard. In Hundert's case, that hubris is also coupled with a naiveté that can't fathom that Bell might not want to play by the accepted rules of honor. Deftly acted by Kline and Hirsch, and Joel Gretsch as the grown-up Sedgewick, The Emperor's Club, despite a rather idealized conclusion, is a touching movie about a man who cares too much. Unusually for Hollywood, it raises questions that don't have easy answers.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses and his course, Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft: The Social Cinema of Sydney Lumet, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina, Toronto), began Monday October 15.

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