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23rd New York Jewish Film Festival, ‘The Jewish Cardinal.’ NY Premiere

Laurent Lucas as Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal, directed by Ilan Duran Cohen at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival

Laurent Lucas as Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal, directed by Ilan Duran Cohen at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival

The New York Premiere of The Jewish Cardinal (Le Metis de Dieu) screened three times at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. As word of mouth spread, the second and third screenings were sold out and the wait list line on the last screening day was very long. Praise for the film and the director’s live Q & A sessions escalated the audience turn out. At the third screening, the film received hearty applause which demonstrated that it was one of the festival’s fan favorites.

Directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chantal Derudder, the film is a fascinating account of Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger (1981-2005). Lustiger was born Aaron Lustiger to Ashkenazi Jewish parents living in France. Lustiger at 13 converted to Catholicism over his father’s protests and attempts to rescind his baptism. He rose in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to become one of its most outspoken and prominent Cardinals, helping Pope John Paul II tackle vital issues of the day politically and globally. The film focuses on the period from Lustiger’s appointment as the Bishop of Orleans until he receives his appointment as Cardinal, The Archbishop of Paris, a position he held until he retired in 2005.

The filmmaker is careful with the memory of Jean-Marie Lustiger, attempting to round what is know of him, a man whose fascinating and surprising journey in life can only benefit our cultural understanding. A testament of Cohen’s brilliant care is evidenced by the enthusiasm with which the film was received at this festival, a combined effort by the Jewish Museum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. The hope is that Cohen’s message, which is the same as Lustiger’s, will be shouted far and wide.

The Jewish Cardinal, directed by Ilan Duran Cohen.

The Jewish Cardinal, directed by Ilan Duran Cohen.

In his introduction to the screening, Cohen simply stated that the film is “about reconciliation.” Indeed, in Lustiger (wonderfully rendered by Laurent Lucas), there is the reconciliation of the two faiths, Judaism and Christianity, and there is revealed the hoped for reconciliation between himself and his father, who were in conflict. Charles Lustiger was devastated by Lustiger’s choice to convert. Nevertheless, Charles was very proud of his son’s independence, his integrity and his perseverance in attempting to show love and forgiveness without compromising his birthright as a Jew. Lustiger makes it clear to everyone that he has converted to Catholicism, but he will never renounce his Judaism. He is a Jew and he is a Catholic. It is his choice and the film intimates why it makes sense for him. During the film we learn that Lustiger is practicing and strengthening his Hebrew and attempting to understand Christianity’s growth and development out of Judaism with Christ as the lynchpin joining both faiths. The film is brilliant in revealing Lustiger’s struggle for reconciliation despite opposition and denunciations from Jews and Catholics. Cohen shows us Lustiger’s humanity and reveals the instances when either his temper or his cowardice overcame him and he nearly faltered in his drive toward uplifting Judaism and Christianity with love, understanding and integrity.

Larent Lucas as Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal

Laurent Lucas as Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal

Rather than reveal Lustiger’s life chronology, Cohen elects to begin when he was vicar of Sainte-Jeanne-de-Chantal (1969-1979) in the wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris with his parochial vicar Andre Vingt-Rois who later succeeded him as Archbishop of Paris when Lustiger retired. He is beloved of his parishioners who affectionately refer to him as “the bulldozer” because of his temper and at times his determined views. We learn later that these are a few of the reasons Pope John Paul II entrusted him with the position of Bishop Orleans. In addition his views are similar to the Pope’s and run counter to some of the French clergy with whom Cardinal Paolo Bertoli (he recommended Lustiger to the Pope) is on bad terms.

After 15 months and much consideration Jean-Paul II notifies Lustiger he will be the Bishop of Orleans. It is a magnificent gesture because Orleans is where Aaron Jean-Marie was baptized into the Christian faith. This act appears to be ordained by God, however, there is an overriding problem and the filmmaker reveals it immediately. Will Charles Lustiger (Henri Guybet) be present at his son’s appointment as Bishop of Orleans? The conflict is clearly revealed when Lustiger visits his father. There are old wounds between the two and there is a bitterness that the father holds for his son. There are emotional hurts Lustiger feels in his father’s non acceptance; he also feels the guilt of letting his father down. However, Cohen makes clear the obvious great love between them and the sacrifice that each is making to attempt to get along when estrangement would have been much easier for both, though it would have left father and son with regrets and sorrow. Lustiger’s female cousin Fanny (Audrey Dana) is a mitigating force and at times acts as the go-between behind the scenes to soften both men to be more supportive and understanding of each other.

Laurant Lucas as Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal

Laurent Lucas as Jean-Marie Lustiger in The Jewish Cardinal

Screenwriters have made excellent choices in keeping Jean-Marie’s past, his decision to convert, his mother’s move back to Paris during WWII to keep the business running, and his time in unoccupied France until 1945 in the shadows.

There are only a few flashbacks which coincide with emotional hurt or an eruption of feelings not yet dealt with in the present or a clarification of the time period. Instead, the dialogue between the father and son elucidates more of what happened in the past: Giselle Lustiger being deported to Auschwitz where she was killed; the father staying in safety with the children in unoccupied France. These moments are used sparely to reveal Jean-Marie’s relationship with his father. And gaps are left about Jean-Marie’s conversion; a spiritual experience is alluded to which is thought provoking. More important is Jean-Marie’s attempt to reconcile himself with his father before he dies and Jean-Marie’s developing relationship with the Pope which is fascinating.

L to R: Aurole Rondieg and Laurant Lucas in The Jewish Cardinal

L to R: Aurélien Recoing and Laurent Lucas in The Jewish Cardinal

Naturally, during his initial conversation with the Pope (a dynamic and believable Aurélien Recoing) he asks whether he was appointed because he was Jewish; he repeats he has made it known that he will not renounce his Judaism though he has chosen to convert to Catholicism. That Jean-Marie is a strong man of courage is made clear and Cohen’s and Derudder’s characterizations of Lustiger and the Pope set up the problems that are to come later in the film. Both must work together to solve the conflicts or there will be disastrous results between global Catholicism and Judaism. However, during this initial visit, we come to understand the brilliant Pope’s vision for France. With Lustiger who eventually will be moved up to the position of Archbishop of Paris, the Pope hopes to restore Catholic France and bring unity amongst believers. It is an uncanny appointment which has later repercussions and which eventually is crucial to facilitating the eventual fall of communism. The fall of communism is the most vital of goals in the Pope’s intentions for Poland and for religious believers globally.

Without Jean-Marie Lustiger’s presence as a reconciler upholding Judaism and Catholicism in the position of Archbishop of Paris, other events may have occurred which would have exacerbated animosity between Jews and Polish Catholics delaying the fall of communism and creating a cultural/religious backlash when cooperation was most needed. How Cohen reveals this is nothing short of revelatory. For those who follow Judaism or Christianity or both, they will most likely agree with Jean-Marie Lustiger that it was God’s will that he was appointed Bishop of Orleans and then Archbishop of Paris. Cohen’s true-to-life storytelling is uplifting. He reminds us of the possibilities for goodness if there is respect, love and forgiveness between and among cultures and those of faith.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

23rd New York Jewish Film Festival, ‘The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich.’ NY Premiere

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Wilhem Reich in The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich, directed by Antonin Svoboda

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Wilhem Reich in The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich, directed by Antonin Svoboda

The New York Premiere of The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, starring award winning actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, and directed by Antonin Svoboda, received enthusiastic applause after its screening at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. After the screening, Svoboda answered questions from the moderator and audience who were fascinated by the intriguing film. The movie uncovers aspects about Reich during the last years of his life. These are not widely known and they hint that a grave injustice was done to him by the government in its Red Scare period from 1947-1957.

Reich is considered one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. Whether you speak with conventional medical adherents or alternative medical scientists, doctors and researchers, Reich is a controversial figure. Certainly, the film begins to clarify the man and his work attempting to put aside some of the negative rhetoric about Reich and align the forward thinking and vital aspects of Reich’s accomplishments: he noted the damaging effects of radiation (1950s); he identified the validity of Eastern medicine’s use of Chi and applied its understanding to his orgone theories.

Antonin Svoboda, Director of The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich, Q & A at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival

Antonin Svoboda, Director of The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, Q & A at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival

Audience members may have had a conceptualization of Reich’s life and work based on mainstream media’s coverage of the Austrian psychoanalyst, whose work initially was built upon Sigmund Freud’s as a member of the second generation of psychoanalysts. In 1947, a freelance journalist disgruntled with psychoanalysis wrote the article “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich”(the film’s title), which appeared in The New Republic.

Reich’s work and therapies using orgone energy were mischaracterized and discredited, and he was labeled a cultist that should be “dealt with.” The article drew negative press attention, and eventually an FDA investigation into his beneficial claims of orgone energy use, which led to his eventual arrest. Four years after Reich’s death, New York publisher Farrer, Giroux and Strauss republished Reich’s major works. Along with the publishing of his books, interested physicians and researchers organized study groups and an associate, Dr. Elsworth Baker (1903-1985), set up the bi-annual Journal of Orgonomy, which is still published today. In 1968 Baker founded the American College of Orgonomy in Princeton, New Jersey, to train physicians in orgonomic therapy.

Svoboda and Rebecca Blasband have written a screenplay that explicates Reich’s “strange case” by moving through important events in his life, though not in chronological order. The film begins with Reich in the Arizona desert using a “cloudbuster” he has developed to test its impact on climate change. We learn during the course of the film, he has used it successfully elsewhere and wants to gauge whether the success will be able to be duplicated under the more extreme desert conditions. From this initial introduction, we understand Reich is a researcher of great curiosity, openness and inventiveness.

Wilhem Reich (Klaus Maria Brandauer) on trial in The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich, directed by Anton Svoboda.

Wilhelm Reich (Klaus Maria Brandauer) on trial in The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, directed by Anton Svoboda.

The arc of the film cobbles together episodes from the past, switching to the present to allow us to piece together his story like a puzzle, which eventually becomes whole by the film’s end. The plot movement is revelatory, interesting. The intricacy is appropriate because human beings are supremely complex, especially ones who are controversial, forward thinking and perhaps brilliant. The filmmaker’s tone is one of fairness desiring to “give Reich his due” and this method of story telling is powerful, mysterious and moment to moment, trumping the linear chronology of the usual bio-pic for the unusual. It is somehow appropriate for this “strange” man who perhaps was not so strange after all.

After the initial scene in the desert, the film  moves to a flashback of a young Reich speaking before an illustrious group of colleagues presenting his controversial findings; they groan and sigh loudly in response to his discussion. Thus, began the schism between himself and the psychoanalytic community with which he was once unified. With this brief presentation and his medical fellows’ negative responses, the filmmaker references that from the 1930s onward, Reich became an increasingly controversial researcher and psychoanalyst who was assiduous in not resorting to group think, inflexibility or slavish compromise. He was courageous in forging out on his own, finding like-minded individuals to work with.

Brandauer’s moderated, exceptional, understated yet dynamic performance reveals that Reich was not concerned about acceptance into the medical power structures that held sway in mainstream research medicine and mainstream psychiatry. The director/writer selected the events that reveal Reich detested playing politics and was his own man. Concerned with helping humanity and not puffing up his career institutionally, he believed that he had discovered a process that was more efficacious, beneficial and much less harmful than the current conventional medical practices being used. Outside of the hierarchy of conventional psychiatry, Reich assiduously continued with his research, enjoying wherever it led him which eventually was to Maine to found Orgonon (named after the town) where he built a laboratory, cottage and other buildings to study orgone energy. Today Orgonon comprises the Wilhelm Reich Museum, and cottages, one being the cottage Reich lived in with his family.

The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich, directed by Antonin Svoboda.

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, directed by Antonin Svoboda.

Predominately through episodes of flashback woven in with the present, the film focuses on the last years of Reich’s life in Maine, dissecting his arrest for contempt of court, the psychiatric evaluation, mainstream medical psychiatric practice in juxtaposition to Reich’s, the trial and the final outcomes.

The filmmaker devotes some attention to Reich’s orgone studies in Maine, his work with orgone boxes and their curative results on a farmer and his wife; these scenes are mingled with the scenes in the present. Other flashbacks include his reconciliation with his daughter Eva (Julia Jentsch) after years of estrangement, his relationship with his wife and partner, his loving relationship with his son.

We also see his relationship to his assistants, avid researchers and loyalists, except for the two who are spies for the government, one of whom was intimidated into providing information against Reich. These important episodes ground Reich in the reality that he is a man of observation and keen intelligence, a loving family man who is at peace with himself, that he is essentially trusting and is happy to engage others in his work. It is also made clear that because Reich is outside the mainstream of the medical establishment, he may be interpreted to be a danger and threat to it. Additionally, his observations about the effects of radiation testing and writings did not sit well with the Atomic Energy Commission during this time of McCarthyism and the Cold War’s overriding question: who would gain a supremacy of nuclear weapons, the US or the Soviet Union?

In an important segment of the film, the director has chosen to reveal the concurrent psychiatric practice employed by Dr. Cameron and others that Reich could have been involved in if he had elected to stay with the mainstream of “modern” psychiatry. These “therapies” included excessive electro shock treatment, drugs, lobotomies and other interventions, with no proven benefit to the patients and in some instances without their voluntary consent.

In a few scenes with one schizophrenic patient, we are brought to understand the calculating, Mengale-like, self-deification of Dr. Cameron. The power of his role gives Cameron the license to use experimental drugs, excessive electro shock and lobotomy to eradicate his subject’s memory and override his free will in the name of “finding a cure.” These scenes are terrifying. His therapies produce no admitted benefits and indeed they result in the patient’s suicide. However, as the President of the American, Canadian and World Psychiatric Associations, Dr. Cameron is considered a world class physician and researcher.

The scenes with Cameron (wonderful performance by Gary Lewis) and the schizophrenic-Thomas (Max Deacon) are dramatic. They portend the critical issues inherent in giving such power to individuals with no moral or ethical compunctions (in the film Cameron says morality and ethics don’t apply to the hippocratic oath). This is especially true when they, like Cameron, are not held accountable for their actions. Svoboda hones in on current themes: some power structures and people are “too big to fail.” Such happens when there is little regulation or accountability. If the doctors spurred on by drug companies used patients as guinea pigs, there was no one to stop them. Their legitimacy was upheld by group think and the fear of ostracism or worse.

Dr. Cameron (Gary Lewis) in The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich.

Dr. Cameron (Gary Lewis) in The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich.

Reich eschewed such practices referring to these psychiatrists as “idiots.” Meanwhile, his patients sat in his orgone boxes called accumulators. Anecdotal patient testimony was positive and patients reported being healed of various conditions (cancer among them) with no physical or mental harm or side effects. Without preaching or being didactic, just by revealing the incidents, the film raises important questions and by the end posits some answers. Why was Reich defamed in a press smear campaign in 1947 that made him appear crazy enough to warrant government investigation? Why was Dr. Cameron larded with honors and awarded prestige and presidencies though his horrific practices caused his patients untold harm even death? Why were government assets employed against Reich?

The film highlights the injustices that Reich suffered at the hands of government agents (CIA, FDA) and Dr. Cameron who controlled the medical power structure. Over the objections of the evaluating psychiatrist that Reich is not really fit to undergo a trial, Cameron overrides the report. We determine that he is motivated not by objective, clinical observation but by his own personal reasons. He makes sure that Reich goes to trial and loses, sealing Reich’s fate. With haughty arrogance, Dr. Cameron derides Reich to his face revealing that in the past he continually denied Reich’s applications to join various psychiatric associations. Reich is nonplussed; he understands who and what Cameron represents and he believes the man has no ultimate power over him. In this exchange, we further understand why Reich has been persecuted. He will not kowtow to such individuals.

In a shift back to the past, more of the mystery of Reich’s case is elucidated. The FDA and other agencies (CIA) used spies and subterfuge to characterize Reich’s orgone therapy as useless. In a particularly powerful scene, agents are questioning a Reich assistant who is a government spy.

The assistant tells agents what she has learned:  that the orgone therapy will be ineffective if the patients are in the orgone boxes only for a brief period of time. The implication is that the government representatives have one purpose: close down Reich, regardless of the efficacy of his program, and perhaps because of it. It’s about power and who holds the reigns. It has little to do with beneficial results, healing efficacy or lack of harm to patients. The film makes this point clear: if the FDA was interested in testing any benefit from Reich’s orgone boxes, they would not have resorted to subterfuge or spying. The FDA would have sent out an official team of researchers and scientists. They didn’t; they created a spy network and adjusted their findings to their own needs.

Wilhem Reich (Klaus Maria Brandauer) with an assistant in The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich.

Wilhelm Reich (Klaus Maria Brandauer) with an assistant in The Strange Case of Wilhem Reich.

Indeed, under scientific protocol there was no attempt to understand Eastern Medicine’s use of Chi (Reich’s claim for orgone energy) that had worked for thousands of years. Western medicine at the time didn’t “officially” accept anecdotal testimony or historical record that it couldn’t patent. So Reich’s ability to  prove the benefits of orgone therapy using the empirical methods demanded by mainstream research and medicine was greatly limited. We see this at the trial; Reich’s attempts to discuss his research are fruitless. The DA who wants “hard proof.” The film intimates that mainstream medical research didn’t necessarily use perfect empirical research either. But by demanding “hard proof” the medical power structure could use that as a determination to judge and get rid of therapies, especially if researchers, like Reich, lacked resources and backing by prestigious associations.

These incidents and others indicate the government’s determination to deal with Reich by nullifying his work. The filmmaker suggests there are root explanations in the tensions of the Cold War. Whether Reich was a casualty of that war may be argued, but there is no mistaking the precarious justice that the FDA followed. Filmmakers show they went after Reich with a vengeance that is surprising in its malevolence. In a poignant scene beautifully rendered by Brandauer, agents force Reich to burn his life’s work, his orgone boxes and his tons of books. Brandauer is particularly brilliant in this scene holding the emotion in restraint as he sets the orgone boxes ablaze after he douses them with gasoline.

Forcing him to destroy his own work (often likened to digging one’s own grave and jumping in it before being shot) and burning his books has been labeled as the worst book banning in American History. Under the guise of protecting the American public from maniac Reich, it is a shaded throwback to book burnings under Nazi Germany fascism. The film’s final unspoken question remains, in the strange case of Wilhem Reich, from whom or what was the American public being protected?

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the film, the information scrolls out the following facts

Dr. Cameron participated in the CIA’s MKULTRA  mind control Program. The illegal program was carried out without informed consent on many unsuspecting victims in Canada and the U.S. Those who signed up voluntarily didn’t know what they were getting into. Whether they knew or they didn’t, in a number of instances the victims were injured permanently and some died.

Reich died in prison less than a month before he was up for parole. Reich was dressed (without his shoes on) and ready for the morning call for breakfast when he was found on his bunk dead. According to the prison physician, he died of a heart attack during the night. There was no autopsy performed.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

23rd New York Jewish Film Festival Opening Night Film, ‘Friends From France’

L to R: Jeremie Lippmann and Soko in Friends From France, Les Interdits, Opening Night at the 23rd NY Jewish Film Festival, Lincoln Center

L to R: Jeremie Lippmann and Soko in Friends From France, Les Interdits, Opening Night at the 23rd NY Jewish Film Festival, Lincoln Center

Opening Night of the 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival screened Friends from France (Les Interdits), written and directed by husband and wife team Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski. This was the U.S. premiere of the film which stars Soko, French singer and actress who most recently played the voice of Isabella in the film Her with Joaquin Phoenix. Weil and Kotlarski were present for a Q & A after the film. They clarified elements of characterization and choices they made with the film’s direction, discussing why they steered the film away from being solely political. They chose to make it more of a suspenseful, personal drama with political undertones as a backdrop for creating the film’s tense, thrilling atmosphere.

L to R: Soko, Jeremie Lippmann, Vladmir Fridman in Friends From France.

L to R: Soko, Jeremie Lippmann, Vladmir Fridman in Friends From France.

Friends from France is set at the height of the Cold War in 1979 Odessa when Soviet Jews were seeking asylum in Israel and America to escape the repression under the Brezhnev regime. The writers/directors achieve a chilling simulacrum of the oppressive environment the Jewish “refuseniks” and political asylum seekers confronted. With dark shadowy shots, washed out, grainy film, and hues of grey and bleeded out color, the predominantly nighttime action and cinematography reflects the impoverished settings, indicative of the lifestyle of the refuseniks who wanted to immigrate to Israel and were treated as enemies of the state. Filmmakers went to abandoned areas of East Germany to recreate the interior apartments and ramshackle dwellings as sets for the poor and rundown areas of Odessa where refuseniks lived in a world separate from the luxurious hotels, dachas, cafes, and restaurants enjoyed by those hooked into the communist party.

Soko as Carole in Friends From France.

Soko as Carole in Friends From France.

The film focuses on the relationship of nineteen-year-old idealist, Carole (Soko in a powerful performance) and Jérôme (Jérémie Lippmann) who are cousins on a mission that in their naiveté they don’t quite understand. As aides to an Israeli organization in France, they go undercover traveling to Soviet Russia to connect with Jewish refuseniks.

Posing as a couple on tour celebrating their recent engagement, they enter the country sneaking in banned books and other items at great peril to themselves. Carole is the political one who has been to Israel and she especially is working with others in Israel and France in the hope of eventually securing visas for refuseniks who are secretly in touch with an Israeli organization via “tourists” who visit from France. Jérôme is with her because he is attracted to Carol and this adventure; he enjoys being with her more than upholding the cause. The code words they use to connect with the refuseniks who are being closely surveilled are, “We are your friends from France.”

Jeremie Lippmann in Friends From France.

Jeremie Lippmann in Friends From France.

Jérôme and Carole must suppress their words and actions because there are “bugs” everywhere and the KGB is on hand to question and take away anyone who appears to be suspicious. The atmosphere the filmmakers create is truly frightening, especially when the young couple nearly get caught and when those they are helping are taken in and forcefully interrogated. During their time in Odessa, they learn the dark underbelly of the subterranean  oppressed culture. They experience the harsh, seedy realities of totalitarianism, the potential exploitation of their youth by the Jewish organization, and the need for escapism through sex and drugs in the stultifying environment. And they befriend the refuseniks, especially Viktor (an excellent Vladimir Fridman) who entrusts Jérôme with a journal of his incredible survival story in the Gulag.

The journal is a subversive document. If it is found by the KGB it will result in imprisonment and torture of the one who possesses it and its author. To complicate matters Jérôme has fallen hopelessly in love with Carole and is devastated when she goes off with one of the “friends” from France. His jealously puts him in an emotional flux. The directors use his emotional state to heighten the suspense and further our anticipation that he is capable of taking unnecessary risks because of it.

Is Carole seeking love elsewhere to escape her love and desire for her cousin, Jérôme? In keeping his promise to Viktor, will Jérôme safely get the journal through customs? Or will he be caught, imperiling himself and jeopardizing the consummation of his love with Carole? The filmmakers are skillful in creating thrilling intrigue. The adventure culminates in an ironic surprise ending. Weill and Kotlarski successfully reinforce the themes which show the extent that love brings the cousins and friends together through sacrifice. It is a journey where only the finest can experience and fully understand the cost of political and personal freedom.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

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