More Baseball, Less Holocaust, Please

It's not all grimness and history at this year's SJFF.

The challenge for the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, now in its 16th year, is always the same: Hammer the Holocaust dramas and documentaries too hard, and no one wants to go. (We already have TV news at home if we want to be depressed, right?) But if SJFF programmers veer too far toward zany marital comedies and culture clashes, then the festival seems lightweight. On balance, this year's mix of 22 features and documentaries, spread over nine days with some ancillary events, feels about right. Yes, there are dastardly Nazis and brave French Resistance fighters, but also cartoons, sports heroes, and classical music to leaven the loaf. The festival opener, The Human Resources Manager, is good enough that it's getting a theatrical release (currently set for March 25). Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree) will be on hand to introduce his seriocomic road movie about a nameless HR manager (Mark Ivanir) confronted with an unwelcome dilemma. At his Jerusalem bakery, run by an imperious widow, a lowly cleaning woman has disappeared, yet she's still drawing a paycheck. This is only a nuisance. Yulia—the only character named in the film, seen only in a cell-phone video—is a Romanian guest worker who had the bad luck to catch a bus with a suicide bomber on board. (The attack isn't seen.) When her body lies unclaimed at the morgue for days, a tabloid newspaper shames the bakery. This becomes a scandal. To atone, the HR manager is dispatched to Romania to accompany the corpse home for a proper Orthodox Christian burial. Leaving behind his tedious job and crumbling marriage, our HR hero is confronted with a bleak, benighted post-Soviet landscape of abandoned factories and feral teens. The populace seems both incredibly pious and incredibly drunk. Yulia's estranged husband and churlish 13-year-old son are little help; nor does the local Israeli counsel contribute much but a rickety van, used to drive 1,000 kilometers through snow and various comic indignities to Yulia's home village. The van (and other conveyances) make for a slow journey, during which time the HR guy predictably learns to appreciate his unlikely comrades on the trip. Improvising as he goes, our hero appears happier on the road than he was back home. No matter how morbid his errand, life is somehow reaffirmed. (Pacific Place, 7:30 p.m., Sat., March 12.) A different sort of hero—two of them, actually—distinguishes Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. Those are Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax—and if such names don't inspire reverence, you needn't get up early for this very Ken Burns–style documentary (Pacific Place, 11 a.m., Sun., March 13). Greenberg has already been the subject of his own 1998 doc, but who doesn't want to root again for the Detroit Tigers slugger of the '30s and '40s? Before he joined the Army during World War II, says Greenberg's son, "He came to feel that every home run he hit was a home run against Hitler." That was during an era when urban Jews were still assimilating in America; baseball seemed the perfect emblem of that process. By the time Koufax became a '60s star for the L.A. Dodgers, the film argues, synagogues had moved to the suburbs. Instead of at the ballpark or through radio broadcasts or newsreel summaries, fans watched Koufax pitch his perfect games on live TV. And when Koufax held out for a higher salary (a harbinger of the free-agent era to come), one young fan did the math. Now grown, Ron Howard recalls that as a child actor on The Andy Griffith Show, he realized that he made more money than his idol! At this time, the owners' cartel capped all players' salaries below six figures. Actually, the third hero of Jews and Baseball is labor leader Marvin Miller, who introduced collective bargaining to baseball and ended the reserve clause. (And the heel, local fans will note, i s former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who took the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee. Boo!) Finally, if you insist on the Holocaust stuff, there are several options. Seen here last October, A Film Unfinished fascinatingly deconstructs a Nazi propaganda film made in the Warsaw Ghetto with the forced participation of its inmates (SIFF Cinema, 9:30 p.m., Tues., March 15). From France, The Round Up is a straightforward dramatization of that country's Vichy collaboration with the Nazis during the summer of 1942. Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds here plays a saintly French nurse who tends to the children of some 13,000 incarcerated Parisian Jews. Jean Reno is the equally saintly Jewish doctor who must, inevitably, accompany his patients east to the camps. There aren't any surprises here (nor is there much explicit violence), and writer/director Roselyne Bosch places too much weight on the cute-kid exceptionalism to a ruthless Franco-German bureaucratic apparatus that, we know from the historical record, made no such exceptions. (SIFF Cinema, 7:30 p.m., Thurs., March 17.)

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