JEWS HAVE SUFFERED not just one catastrophe during the 20th century, but the enormity of the Holocaust has tended to obscure a second, subsequent loss. Those who survived or avoided the concentration camps then often had their passports and identities liquidated in the chaotic aftermath of the Third Reich and Cold War partition of Europe. All that remained for some to prove who they were was a handful of yellowed letters and crinkled photographs.
written and directed by Emmanuel Finkiel with Shulamit Adar, Liliane Rov貥, Natan Cogan, Esther Gorintin runs April 20-May 3 at Grand Illusion
It's on that unreliable basis, subject to hazy memory and variable name spellings, that the subjects of Voyages strive for connection to lost family and community. Unlike more immediately accessible recent Holocaust films—Schindler's List, Life Is Beautiful, Jacob the Liar—depicting vivid historical events, the slow, somber, memory-infused Voyages is set in the present (contemporary France, Poland, and Israel). Its characters speak Yiddish, an almost forgotten language that tenuously links them to the prewar world—and to one another. With a three-part structure, each chapter of Voyages relates a different woman's story.
In the first, we meet 65-year-old Rivka (Shulamit Adar), a Holocaust survivor on a bus tour through Poland. The destination: Auschwitz. In the second, 65-year-old R駩ne (Liliane Rov貥) is a Paris widow orphaned by the Holocaust. Her solitary life is interrupted by arrival of an elderly Lithuanian (Natan Cogan) who claims to be her father. Finally, we see 85-year-old widow Vera (Esther Gorintin) arriving with other Russian immigrants in Tel Aviv. She's looking for a cousin who left Moscow decades earlier, but is totally unprepared for the heat and bustle of the modern city.
What do these women have in common? More than 50 years after the Holocaust, each is still coping with loss while also hoping to somehow reestablish kinship with someone. Rivka takes notes in a Polish cemetery, trying to trace her family lineage to some possibly overlooked surviving relative. R駩ne compares her photos and memories with those of her supposed father, more wary than elated by his appearance.
IN THIS WAY, those individuals still possessed of living memories of the pre-Holocaust era and postwar diaspora make one last effort to recall a nearly extinct culture. Meanwhile, the indifferent modern world is racing past them, lending poignancy to their efforts. Vera amusingly suggests that in Israel there are no more Jews (as she understands them), only Israelis, because no one speaks Yiddish anymore. Rivka's impatient husband rebukes her that she's "living with ghosts"—but so must all Holocaust survivors, Voyages argues, since ghosts are real. Those thought dead can return from the oblivion of memory to your doorstep.
Nowhere is this brought home more profoundly than in a brief, haunting scene that finds Rivka's bus broken down on a bleak, muddy Polish road. Another tour bus of elderly Jews pulls alongside, and the occupants of the two vehicles clear away their steamed windows to peer at one another. The few feet between them yawns like years, and the faces appear so familiar, but aged. An air of half-recognition hangs between them with a thousand unanswered questions: What village are you from? What's your maiden name? How is it spelled? Because the difference of a few letters, the difference between two sisters taking separate paths to escape the Nazis, can forever divide family members until happenstance reunites them decades later.
Naturally, then, the seemingly distinct episodes of this often tedious but deeply affecting triptych are ultimately related— although without providing any easy Spielberg-style emotional payoff. Having worked with Jean-Luc Goddard and Krzysztof Kieslowski before making this exceptionally wise, assured first feature, Emmanuel Finkiel has a healthy respect for coincidence and an artist's aversion to clich鮠When two old friends are unexpectedly reunited, one exclaims, "See—it's fate." Even as Voyages' characters grapple with the idea of such random providence (no less unpredictable than calamity), this powerful film suggests that in a chance life-altering encounter one can find something resembling grace.