Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight


After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. She recently released a new eBook, " Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter ."

Tzivi’s Spotlight

Tzivi reviews A Tale of Love and Darkness

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A Tale of Love and Darkness is Natalie Portman’s adaptation of the memoir Amos Oz published in 2004. Portman wrote, directed, and stars as Fania Mussman, the mother of a boy originally named Amos Klausner who would grow up to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

After a world premiere in May 2015 at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, A Tale of Love and Darkness opened in Israel, and then played at multiple international film festivals (including Beijing, Nashville, and Toronto). I saw it for the first time in January (2016) at the New York Jewish Film Festival. I saw it a second time at a critics screening here in New York last month.

I consider this film a masterpiece… but you probably won’t hear many other film critics say that. I am sure it is opening in theaters in the USA now because the distributors are hoping for Oscar nominations, but I doubt there will be any. Even though it was filmed in Hebrew with a predominately Israeli cast, it was not especially well-received by the Israel Film Academy which announced nominees for the 2016 Ophir Awards (aka “the Israeli Oscar”) last week.

As the title makes clear, this is a very downbeat story. The narrator is an old man (Amos Oz himself as played by actor Alexander Peleg) who has spent a lifetime trying to understand the still incomprehensible fact that his beautiful mother killed herself when he was barely twelve years old.

From the many strands of this dense book, Portman has braided together three. The first is the story of two people – a woman from Poland and a man from Lithuania – who both moved to Mandate Palestine just before the start of World War II, only to learn soon after that almost everyone and everything they knew had been obliterated in the Holocaust. The second is the related story of their attempt to build a new life together in the Promised Land, only to discover that their “land of milk and honey” was a rainy, chilly, embattled Jerusalem, quickly engulfed by the flames of Israel’s War of Independence. The third focuses on one boy who had these parents and lived at this time, seeking to ferret out the earliest indications of the artist he would one day become.

Since the memoir is well over 500 pages in length, A Tale of Love and Darkness could have been adapted for the screen in many different ways, but this was clearly something of an obsession for Portman. Like Oz himself, she wanted to know why Fania killed herself. I suspect the answer to this question will always be elusive in every case, but I was deeply moved by the depths to which Portman plunged, and I say this as someone who was dismayed by the plot-driven suicides of female Holocaust survivors in three recent films from Europe (Ida, Phoenix, and Sarah’s Key).

Fania Mussman was raised in a prominent Polish family, so even though she was Jewish, she expected a genteel life. As the prettiest of three sisters, she assumed she would always be cared for and protected. Arriving in the Yishuv as a teenager, she was filled with romantic idealism. But learning that everyone she had grown up with was now gone trapped her in an emotional vise. On the one hand Fania knew she was lucky to be alive, but on the other hand, she also knew that just being alive did not, in itself, make her “happy” like she always thought she would be.

Fania tries so hard. The strain of her constant effort to be “normal” is exhausting to watch. But that is all her young son Amos (Amir Tessler) can do, watch helplessly as his fragile mother struggles day-by-day to keep going. No one else will even acknowledge the problem, certainly not his father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) or any of the family members on either side. The only person who appears to have any empathy for this family of three is his father’s friend Israel Zarchi (Ohad Knoller). But since Zarchi was a novelist/poet also afflicted with melancholia, his profession was to see what others were determined to avoid.

All of the technical elements of A Tale of Love and Darkness are superb. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak is elegant, especially in the many sequences in which Fania weaves strange bedtime stories that transport her son to the edge of mysticism. The production design by Arad Sawat, and set design by Noa Roshovsky and Salim Shehade (who have worked on some of my favorite recent Israeli movies including A Place in Heaven, Footnote, and Restoration) combine to perfectly evoke both the mundane and the magical. Casting director Hila Yuval clearly knows everyone who is anyone, and highly-regarded Israeli actors who are used to playing major roles add depth to tiny parts for Portman’s sake.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is one story of displacement, documented with precision because this one woman had a son who wanted to tell her story and was finally able to do so after years of inner torment. But now Fania speaks for displaced people everywhere. Stop and think for a moment about how it might feel to lose everything you know, end up on some foreign shore, and then try to keep living “your” life. This is clearly one of the most important issues of our era, and something with which we—as Jews—are intimately familiar. We have been displaced time and again. We know the benefits, now we must also acknowledge the costs.

As Portman says in her “Filmmaker Letter” on the Landmark website: “The immigrant experience of idealizing the place you’re going to before you get there, and idealizing the place you’ve left once you’re gone, is something many of us can relate to. And the way the young Amos translates that longing into art through storytelling, gives us something to aspire to.”

A Time of Love and Darkness opens at the Landmark Theatre at Renaissance Place in Highland Park on Friday August 19. I strongly urge you to ignore everything else you may hear about this film, listen only to me, see it on a big screen, and make up your own mind. For schedule information, visit the Landmark website.


Top Photo: Fania (Natalie Portman) struggles to give her son Amos (Amir Tessler) a normal life.
Bottom Photo from Left: Arieh (Gilad Kahana), Fania, Amos and Israel Zarchi (Ohad Knoller) listen to the UN vote that gave birth to the State of Israel on November 29, 1947.

 Photo Credits: © Ran Mendelson

Tzivi reviews Cafe Society, Wiener-Dog and The Witness

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The Witness

Three new films of potential interest to Jewish cinefiles open in Metro Chicago today. The first is Woody Allen’s new pastiche, Café Society. The second is Wiener-Dog, the latestdark comedy” from Todd Solondz. The third is The Witness (a documentary purportedly about the murder of Kitty Genovese).

Maybe the heat is making me grouchy, but I have seen all three of these films, and despite all their differences, I find them all deeply flawed in ironically similar ways. None of them do justice to the historicity of their narratives, and none of them are concerned with the Jewish sensibilities of the audience (even knowing that members of the Tribe are likely to buy the lion’s share of tickets).

Café Society

I doubt anyone will be surprised by the suggestion that Woody Allen films attract large Jewish audiences. I am sure this is always the case, and all the more so when trailers for Café Society make it so clear that many of the characters to be seen on screen will be Jewish. Despite decades of debate about his personal flaws, many Jewish film-lovers flock to Allen’s films, even when so many of us we know we are likely to be disappointed.

Since Café Society opened last weekend in Manhattan, I know several Brooklyn friends who have already seen it and liked it. I understand. Go in expecting Woody to be Woody, and there are worse ways to chill out on a hot day.

But for me, in the years since he won a Best Picture Oscar in 1977 for Annie Hall (a great American classic fully deserving of its high acclaim), there are only five films that that I would willingly watch again of all the dozens he’s made in the interim: Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Loves You and Match Point. Note that my list does not include either Manhattan or Midnight in Paris, mirror movies that both made me cringe. Some of you might even remember that I wrote a lot about this when Midnight in Paris was released in 2011.

For specific concerns, read the rant on my blog. Note that I call it a “rant” rather than a “review” because I cannot pretend to be “objective” on the subject of Woody Allen.

The Witness

When 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her Queens, New York apartment building on March 13, 1964, it was a private event. Her name did not become more widely known until two weeks later, when the New York Times published a story with the sensational headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”

On that day -- March 27, 1964 -- the story of Kitty Genovese made the leap from private sorrow to public symbol, and every one of the reporters responsible for that transformation from private to public was Jewish, including A.M. Rosenthal and Martin Gansberg of the New York Times, as well as Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes, and Gabe Pressman of WNBC (the NBC flagship station).

But even though director James Solomon had the opportunity to interview three of these men (Gansberg having died in the interim), he is oblivious. Looking for dramatic effect, he creates a documentary that plays out like a made-for-TV movie.

Kitty's youngest brother, Bill, is cast as a Colombo-esque presence who gently prods people to provide “clues” about what “really happened” the night Kitty died. Missing is any appreciation for context, and therefore any sense of why this particular murder might have triggered such a massive emotional response at that time.

For those who don't know much about Genovese, this is certainly a good introduction, as long as you can accept that Solomon’s documentary opens more questions than it answers.

For more thoughts on the Kitty Genovese case from the Jewish point of view, read my blog post.


Finally, Wiener-Dog, the latest from Todd Solondz, is another film you might think would be of interest to a Jewish audience. 

Once upon a time, I was intrigued by Solondz and I even wrote a long and very positive review of Palindromes way back in 2004. But like Allen, Solondz has long since exhausted my patience, and since there is no overt “Jewish content” in Wiener-Dog anyway, I cannot even recommend it for a look-see. However, if you want to go, you will find it at the Music Box Theatre.


Café Society is playing at both local Landmark theatres (in Lincoln Park and Highland Park). For times and tickets, visit the Landmark Chicago website.

The Witness is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street. For times and tickets, visit the GSFC website. Director James Solomon will be available for Q and A via Skype after the Saturday, July 23 screening.

Wiener-Dog is playing at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. For times and tickets, visit the Music Box website.

 Cafe Society

Top Photo: Family photo of Kitty Genovese provided by the filmmakers.

Bottom Photo: Mama Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) calls her children back to the Bronx for Passover… but it plays out like an ordinary family dinner with no Haggadot, no Exodus, and barely any Jewish “tam” (Yiddish for “flavor”).

Tzivi reviews Eva Hesse

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On paper, artist Eva Hesse’s biography reads like a 20th century nightmare cooked up by a Jewish screenwriter.

Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936. In 1938, when she was not quite three years old, her parents sent her on a Kindertransport to the Netherlands in the care of her older sister Helen. Her parents arrived six months later, and the family fled first to England and then to America. However, even though she was safe in New York, her mother was deeply disoriented. After learning the details of the loss of her entire family in the Holocaust, she killed herself in 1946.

The grieving girl -- barely 10 years old at the time -- threw herself into the art world, studying first at the New York School of Industrial Art, then Pratt Institute, then Cooper Union, and finally Yale University (where she received a BA in 1959). After a slow start and a bad marriage, she rose like a meteor, but crashed when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1969. Eva Hesse died in May 1970 at the age of 34.

And yet, on screen, filmmaker Marcie Begleiter has turned this bleak life into something luminous. For every year she was alive, Begleiter shows Eva Hesse as an indefatigable woman with unforgettable incandescence.

The challenge of all films about visual art is to present three-dimensional work on a flat two-dimensional screen. All too often, therefore, whether they are documentaries or features, these films do better at depicting the life of the artist than capturing the physicality of the art. The artist goes here, there, and to the other place; the artist paints this and sculpts that, then frets about how to present it in a gallery. Most of the time, the work itself gets lost in voiceover narration and background music. We learn a lot about the making of the work, but we are left without a feel for its aesthetic impact.

What raises Eva Hesse above a conventional bio-doc is Begleiter’s careful attention to context. True, we cannot walk around Hesse’s installations and see them from all sides, but we can sense how different they look from the Minimalist masterpieces of her time. In a work such “Eccentric Abstraction” (1966), we can see how Hesse teased the most successful artists of her time -- all of whom were male -- with tendrils of fiberglass that seductively tickled the edges of their rigid grids.

In the end, after actress Selma Blair has read pages and pages from Hesse’s diaries as well as extensive excerpts from her letters to family and friends, and after all the experts have said their say, what remains is not the tragic life but the vibrant work. In my mind, I can picture her laughing as she plays chess with the grim reaper and he realizes he has lost.

In this way, Eva Hesse reminds me of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, the film I reviewed last January. In the 21st century, we can clearly see how the Holocaust gave birth to an explosion of Jewish energy in the second half of the 20th century that has enriched the world in every domain of human endeavor. So, add Eva Hesse’s name to that growing list of all those to be remembered and treasured for ever after.

Eva Hesse opens today, June 10, for a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. Producer Karen Shapiro will be present for audience discussion at all shows today today and tomorrow (Saturday, June 11). Click here for times and tickets.

For more thoughts on Eva Hesse as well as additional pictures, visit my blog:

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Top Photo: Eva Hesse at the opening reception for “Eccentric Abstraction” 1966. (Photo Norman Goldman.)

Bottom Photo: Eva Hesse in 1968. (Photo by Herman Landshoff.)

Photos courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Tzivi reviews Weiner

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Anthony Weiner is back. Three years after his campaign for mayor of New York City degenerated into a tabloid scandal, Weiner is suddenly everywhere again. But this time he has no independent ability to shape the story. He is an object of scrutiny rather than an agent of change, and his public demise -- brilliantly captured in the award-winning new documentary Weiner -- is a tawdry tale of our times.

A brief refresher: Anthony Weiner is the Brooklyn-born son of Jewish lawyer Mort Weiner and high school math teacher Frances Finkelstein Weiner. The second of three brothers, Anthony majored in political science in college, and after graduation, he started working for his mentor Chuck Schumer (a congressman from Brooklyn at the time).

After three years in Schumer’s Washington, D.C. office, Weiner moved back to Brooklyn so he could build his own base in local politics. He worked for Schumer for another three years, and then ran for New York City Council. By age 27, Weiner had climbed the first rung, entering the record books as the youngest councilman in New York City history. In 1998, when Schumer moved up to the Senate, Weiner replaced him in the House where he quickly established himself as one of the tigers of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

In 2010, Weiner married Huma Abedin, who had started her own political life in college as a White House intern assigned to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Abedin and Clinton clicked, and Abedin followed Clinton back to New York when Clinton ran for Senate in 2000. Abedin then worked for Clinton when she was a senator, served as chief of staff when she ran for president in 2008, and became a key part of her team when Clinton was Secretary of State. Bill Clinton personally officiated at the Abedin/Weiner wedding. They were a golden couple with unlimited potential.

And then…

Weiner (the documentary) begins with a rueful Anthony Weiner reflecting on his failed bid for City Hall. He appears to be alone in a small room, speaking personally to co-director Josh Kriegman. Perhaps there are other crew members in the room, but even so this interview is extraordinarily intimate. 

Kriegman worked for Weiner before making the leap into filmmaking, and their prior relationship no doubt helps to explain his “up close and personal” access. (According to LinkedIn, Kriegman served as Weiner’s senior aide from 2004 to 2005, and was chief of staff in his District office from 2005 to 2006.)

But Weiner has achieved its acclaim as a film because of the way Kriegman and his co-director Elyse Steinberg use their footage, leaping back and forth in time, seamlessly melding historical clips with footage from the campaign trail, while repeatedly returning to that culminating interview. Every time Weiner appears in close-up wearing a blue shirt, grey sweater vest, and navy jacket, Kriegman and Steinberg have looped the audience back, yet again, to that claustrophobic room in which sits a man whose hopes and dreams have been dashed.

The essence of the personal tragedy lies in the contrast between the forlorn private citizen of 2015 versus the fiery orator fighting for 9-11 first responders in 2010, and the ebullient politician -- whipping crowds into frenzy during the Israel Day Parade in May, the Gay Pride Parade in June, and the West Indian Day Parade in August -- during his run for mayor in 2013.

Weiner’s promise was great. His sin was small. And yet, the details were so titillating that even longtime, highly placed media friends such as Bill Maher, Lawrence O’Donnell and Jon Stewart could not resist the feeding frenzy. I am sure they convinced themselves that attacking Weiner was proof of their political impartiality, but watching them ridicule Weiner on television is a particularly painful reminder of how real people look when transformed into tasty snacks fed to a voracious media monster.

In one scene, someone points out that Weiner was never even in the same room as his willing “victims.” So it is ludicrous to compare him to actual perpetrators like Bill Cosby, Dennis Hastert and Roman Polansky, among others. And I say this as someone who thinks Bill Clinton should have resigned in 1998 because Monica Lewinsky was an employee at the time of their affair (even though I never believed the impeachment trial itself was anything more than a witch hunt).

That Weiner should have been brought low by something as petty as a sexting scandal is a national tragedy. When Kriegman and Steinberg decided to make this film, they had no idea how the race for mayor of New York would unfold. And yet, it arrives in theatres at the perfect time, just as we are at the midst of a presidential contest that is already consumed by “reality show” antics. 

Weiner opens today (May 27) at the Music Box Theatre on Southport and the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

For times and tickets at the Music Box, visit

For times and tickets at the Landmark, visit:

For additional links and photos, visit my Blog:

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Top Photo: Anthony Weiner marches in the Gay Pride Parade (June 2013).

Bottom Photo: Anthony Weiner surrounded by press piranhas (July 2013).

Photo Credits:

Tzivi reviews Vita Activa

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Ada Ushpiz’s brilliant new documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is an audacious attempt to completely reframe the legacy of Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt is best-known today for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Arendt was in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961 (the day the trial began) because she had arranged to cover it for The New Yorker magazine. The result was a highly controversial series of articles in The New Yorker,which were later republished in book form by Viking Press in 1963.

One result of this close association between the names Hannah Arendt and Adolph Eichmann is that we are inclined to think of Arendt now as a "Holocaust survivor." But as Ushpiz makes clear, Arendt was already safe in America by 1941, long before the infamous Wannsee Conference (on January 20, 1942) during which those at the table—including Eichmann—planned the details of what they hoped would be "the final solution" to the "Jewish problem."

In fact, Arendt learned about the true horrors of the Holocaust second and third hand (like most Americans did). So even though it is probably unconscious, we are wrong to make the assumption that the course of either her life or her work were directly determined by the Holocaust.

To the contrary, what Ushpiz shows is that the formative experience of Arendt’s own life was not annihilation, but exile and displacement, what Arendt herself called "statelessness." No doubt Ushpiz, who is Israeli, felt this acutely when she began to do her research for this film five years ago. But surely even she is somewhat dismayed to see how au courantthis makes Arendt’s work. As new waves of refugees settle in camps all around the borders of Israel and flood ever further into Europe, perhaps Arendt’s work is even more relevant today—in 2016—than ever before.

The centerpiece of Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is a long interview she did on German television in 1964. As abhorrent as much of the content is, listen carefully and her conclusions about Adolph Eichmann are chillingly prescient. "I really thought Adolph Eichmann was a clown and I laughed out loud when I read the transcript..." He was "intelligent but dumb…" "Evil is thought-defying. Clichés are its comfort."

Wrapped around this interview are a birth-to-death biography with excerpts from her mother Martha’s diary ("Hannah turned four in October… She has an intellectual side to her, loves books."), followed by extensive quotes from many letters read by actress Alison Darcy. (Hannah Arendt was a prodigious letter-writer who maintained innumerable relationships with many people across the twin distances of miles and years.)

There are also long passages from several of her books, most especially The Origins of Totalitarianism(published in English by Schocken Books in 1951).

"The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them… With the emergence of the minorities of Eastern and Southern Europe and with the stateless people driven into Central and Western Europe, a complete new element of disintegration was introduced into post-WWI Europe. Denationalization became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics... Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyites, etc.—were received as scum of the earth everywhere."

This is what Hannah Arendt knew firsthand, and articulating the condition of statelessness—as well as its dire legal, moral and political consequences—is her true legacy.

Almost a half century after her death in 1975 (at the age of 69), it is still difficult to stick a label on her. Was Arendt a philosopher? Was she a political theorist? Was she a public intellectual? Ushpiz includes some interviews with prominent talking heads in Israel and the USA to debate all of this, but the fact is Arendt is difficult to label precisely because she refused to be labeled.

As Ushpiz makes clear in the course of her film, Arendt was committed to a life spent in essential dialogue with herself, so she defined herself more through the act of thinking in itself than in the results of any particular thoughts articulated at any specific points in time. This makes Ushpiz’s film dense and draining, but I urge you to stick with it. Ushpiz certainly convinced me, thereby making my own emotional investment in this difficult subject matter well worth the effort.

In the Q and A I attended the night Vita Activaopened at the Film Forum in Manhattan, Ushpiz said: "Thinking independently, and deeply, and provocatively… is the only way to fight our conditioned state."

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is currently playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. For times and tickets, visit their website.

For more photos from Vita Activa as well as more quotes from the April 6, 2016 Q and A at the Film Forum, visit my blog.

Read my review of Hannah Arendt(Margarethe von Trotta's 2012 BioPic)


Photos: Hannah Arendt, subject of Ada Ushpiz’s documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Tzivi reviews Colliding Dreams

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Colliding Dreams, a new documentary about the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict from the Jewish-American point of view, comes to us from two men with superlative credentials. Filmmaker Joseph Dorman is best-known to us as the director of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. Oren Rudavsky is best-known to us as the director of Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust. Together they have taken a leap of faith, crafting an epic drama worthy of its subject.

I first saw the directors’ cut of this film at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival. Back then it was called The Zionist Idea, and it was 160 minutes long (2 hours and 40 minutes). That was just fine with me, but clearly too long for others. So Dorman and Rudavsky locked themselves up with their editors to produce this new cut, which is “only” 134 minutes long. However, I am happy to report that Colliding Dreams is not merely 26 minutes shorter than The Zionist Idea, it is also tighter and better focused -- so all their travails were well worth the effort.

In a Q and A after the screening that I attended at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in Manhattan on March 4, Dorman said: “Me, Oren, and our two editors, we fought a lot to be truthful to all points of view … but we didn’t make a film about Palestine. We made a film about Zionism from the Jewish point of view, although we did try to capture the Palestinian point of view too.”

But this relatively straightforward statement belies the complexity of their endeavor. There is no one “Jewish point of view,” nor is there one “Palestinian point of view.” So the attempt to “be truthful to all points of view” really means focusing on the differences within each group, in hopes of finding points on the continuum where most people find themselves closer to the midpoint than to either of the poles.

The filmmakers give this their all. Quoting Dorman in the Q and A again: “We have no ‘political message’ per se. [Oren and I] believe in a Two-State Solution. A Jewish State must be democratic. So both attacks on Israel and self-righteous support for Israel are both wrong-headed … There will always be at least two narratives.”

These twin narratives are presented chronologically -- with voiceover by Michael Douglas -- in five sections:

  • The Jewish Dilemma
  • One Land/Two Peoples
  • Another Zionism
  • Recognition
  • The Zionist Dilemma

The timespan is more than a century, from 1882 to the day before yesterday. Every major milestone and movement is described, with abundant historical footage prompting cheers and tears. The long list of speakers includes the famous and the infamous. (Which talking head should get which label will depend, of course, on your own point of view.) There are many politicians and religious leaders as well as artists and intellectuals. There are also citizen voices, people in the flow of daily life who are interviewed on the sidewalks of Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

This is a complex, demanding film, and I will not attempt to summarize further. All I can really do is urge you to see it for yourself, for yourself, your children and Jews everywhere.

Colliding Dreams opens in Metro Chicago March 25 at the Music Box Theater on Southport and the Landmark Renaissance Center Cinema in Highland Park. For times and tickets, follow these links to the Music Box website, and the Landmark website.

For additional photos and comments from the Lincoln Plaza Cinema Q and A with Joe Dorman, visit my Blog Second City Tzivi.

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Top Photo: IDF soldiers remove a protester during the evacuation of an Israeli settlement.

Bottom Photo: A group of young “illegal” immigrants on board the Hagana ship “Jewish State” arrive in the port of Haifa. (Note: I took the liberty of converting this photo from black and white to sepia so that the wonderful expressions on these precious faces would show better online.)

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Colliding Dreams website.

Tzivi reviews Carvalho's Journey

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Have you made plans for Valentine’s Day yet? If not, then I suggest you go straight to the Spertus Institute website and order tickets for their screening of Carvalho's Journey.

Although the Spertus description doesn’t mention this angle, I am here to tell you that Carvalho's Journey, in addition to all its other virtues, may well be one of the greatest love stories in Jewish American history.

This wonderful new documentary—newly released by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University—interweaves three powerful stories. First and foremost, Carvalho's Journey is a BioDoc about Solomon Nunes Carvalho (pronounced Kar-Vay-Oh), an artist born into a distinguished Charleston, SC Sephardic family in 1815. Second, it tells an arduous tale of survival in the Early West that captures almost everything seen onscreen in The Revenant except the bear. Third, Carvalho's Journey is also an insightful description of the transition from daguerreotype to modern photography with moving details about how ordinary people felt when they saw fixed images of themselves and their loved ones for the very first time. And with all this, there is even a romance? Yes!

Our guide is Robert Shlaer, a professional daguerreotypist who has devoted himself to reproducing original images captured by Solomon Nunes Carvalho on John C. Fremont’s fifth and final expedition across the Rocky Mountains. Fremont had two reasons for taking a daguerreotypist west with him. The overt purpose was to document a winter route for the transcontinental railroad along the 38th parallel. The covert purpose was to create heroic images for Fremont’s presidential campaign. Yup! Way back in 1853, the man who was to become the first Republican Presidential Candidate in American history was looking for new ways to market himself to the public. As a result, this was the first of the great expeditions to be fully documented by a photographer.

Carvalho met Fremont—best remembered in American History by his nickname “The Pathfinder”—in New York. Fremont wanted Mathew Brady, already well-known for his book The Gallery of Illustrious Americans (a portrait collection of prominent contemporary figures released in 1850). Brady recommended Carvalho, and even though he had a wife and two children to support, Carvalho signed on immediately.

In retrospect, his eagerness to join Fremont is almost heart-stopping. Not only was Carvalho Jewish, he was devout. Not only was Carvalho a slight man with no prior experience roughing it in the great outdoors, he was an artist/intellectual used to a refined life with all the comforts of home.

Shlaer, who creates a portable dark room in his van, marvels at the sheer technical difficulty of Carvalho’s project. He explains that no one had ever attempted to make daguerreotype plates “on the go” in sub-zero temperatures before. Nevertheless, after only two weeks of preparation, Carvalho boarded a train with twenty cases of luggage on September 5, 1853, and headed off for his meet up with Fremont in St. Louis.

At this point (around the thirty minute mark), filmmaker Steve Rivo switches from Shlaer’s first-person story to third-person narration by actor Michael Stuhlbarg. This is when we learn about Carvalho’s family history, from Portugal to Barbados to Charleston, South Carolina. Those who don’t know much about Sephardic American history will be astonished to learn how prosperous and well-integrated Charleston was in the early 19th Century. Equally surprising is the fact that no one seems to have objected to Solomon’s artistic inclinations. Quite the contrary, after the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue burned down, the community was happy to pay Solomon for his beautiful rendering of the sanctuary (which he did from memory).

Back to St. Louis. Fremont and his men—including Carvalho—headed west across Kansas towards the Rocky Mountains. But they encountered difficulties almost immediately and things went steadily downhill. Now it is one thing to watch Leonardo DiCaprio simulate the experiences of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but learning how Solomon Nunes Carvalho not only learned to ride a horse, but also summoned the determination to eat that same horse when the time came is nothing short of remarkable.

But we know the details and we believe the details because of the letters Carvalho wrote all along the way to his wife Sarah Miriam Solis. The letters Solomon wrote to Sarah became the core of a book he published in 1856. That same year, Solomon also painted a portrait of Sarah that shows just how much his love for her sustained him in his darkest hours. John C. Fremont ran for President in 1856, but lost to Democrat James Buchanan. Meanwhile Solomon and Sarah were married for forty-nine years. She died in 1894. He died in 1897.

Remember, I promised you a love story… Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Spertus screening of Carvalho's Journey is Sunday, February 14 at 2 PM, and filmmaker Steve Rivo will be onsite for a post-screening Q and A. To order tickets, visit the Spertus Institute website.

Top: Self Portrait, Solomon Nunes Carvalho/Courtesy: Yeshiva University Museum
Bottom: Painting of The Rio Grande by Solomon Nunes Carvalho/Courtesy: Oakland Museum
Used with permission from the National Center for Jewish Film


Carvalho's Journey is only one of the four programs Spertus is offering in its new Sunday Cinema series this month. To learn more about the other three film s, visit my blog.

2/7: Raise the Roof

2/21: Camera Obscura

2/28: How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire


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