(English, French, Romanian dialogue)
Family Secret” documents New York filmmaker Pola Rapaport’s discovery, via an unexpected letter from Romania, of a half-brother she never knew she had. As the title suggests, the film looks at the lasting ties of family and the power of secrecy to obstruct, but not sever, those ties. Less distinctive and unconventional than some of the director’s previous experimental work — most notably “Broken Meat,” her 1990 portrait of Beat poet Alan Granville — this personal essay doesn’t quite deliver the emotional rewards it promises, but is sufficiently engrossing to land festival and TV dates.
After a lifetime’s mission to find his father, 54-year-old Pierre Radulescu-Banu makes contact with Rapaport, hesitantly informing her of their shared parentage. Their father, who died 25 years earlier, was a secretive man whose last words reportedly were, “Be discreet.” Perhaps due to the lasting effects of Gestapo persecution, he revealed little about his past, either in Romania or in Paris, where he lived before emigrating to America. The tendency of Rapaport’s mother to ask no questions placed an additional veil over the past.
This aspect of withheld information among couples, families and generations emerges as the film’s primary theme, a trait carried over into Pierre’s relationship with his son, a student at MIT. The other important theme is separation, underlined in the letters, excerpted in voiceover, between Rapaport’s father and his parents, whom he corresponded with for 40 years but never saw again.
Mixing B&W and color, archival footage and video, Rapaport pieces together the material into a smoothly edited account of her father’s past and that of Pierre, chronicling his trip to Staten Island to stay with her family and her journey with him back to Romania and Paris.
While the fulfillment of Pierre’s long-cherished wish to make contact with his father’s family clearly represents the film’s natural conclusion, docu fails to reflect on what kind of lasting impact the discovery will have on either family and, consequently, seems short on final-act emotional revelations. But despite this, “Family Secret” offers a unique and intimate view of war, displacement and immigration as the 20th century’s great dividers.