Review: ‘Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema’

Australian documentary director Monique Schwarz takes a lively, penetrating look at the way Jewish mothers have been represented in the cinema over the years in "Mamadrama," which, with its well-chosen film excerpts and informative talking-heads contributions, is fine television fodder.

Australian documentary director Monique Schwarz takes a lively, penetrating look at the way Jewish mothers have been represented in the cinema over the years in “Mamadrama,” which, with its well-chosen film excerpts and informative talking-heads contributions, is fine television fodder. Down Under, pic is getting a small theatrical release and should enjoy a sprightly ancillary career down the track, with festival slottings also assured.

Schwarz, whose parents survived the Holocaust, says she was first confronted with the Hollywood stereotype of a Jewish mom when she saw the Bud Yorkin comedy “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1963. However, she was unable to relate to the domineering Jewish mother played by Molly Picon, since her own mother was a cultured, kindly woman who ran a retail garment establishment with her husband.

Her investigation into Jewish mothers in film has resulted in a revealing trawl through old movies. Schwarz concludes that the stereotypical Jewish mama was mainly featured in films made in the ’70s and ’80s. Her examples include “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), in which Ruth Gordon makes life miserable for George Segal; “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), in which Lee Grant humiliates Richard Benjamin; and “My Favorite Year” (1982), directed by Benjamin, with Lainie Kazan embarrassing son Mark Linn-Baker.

However, Schwarz makes the point that the Jewish mother wasn’t always portrayed as an emasculating, overbearing figure of fun. In silent films like “Hungry Hearts” (1922) and “His People” (’25), the mother is the strong, lovable character, the glue holding together immigrant families. And from “The Jazz Singer” (1927) to the Yiddish-language films of the late ’30s, including “Where Is My Child?” (’37), “A Letter to Mother” (’38) and “Mothers of Today” (’39), the mother is the moral center of the film.

Schwarz also visits Israel to examine Israeli-produced films and, not surprisingly, finds a very different approach to the subject in films such as “Aunt Clara” (1977) and “Summer of Aviya” (’88); star of the latter film, Gila Almogar, makes some revealing contributions to the debate.

Critics Michael Medved and Jim Hoberman offer useful ideas, and historian Patricia Erens suggests the Jewish-mother stereotype of more recent times is a fantasy figure of male writers and directors.

“Mamadrama” is a solid talking-point film, thoughtfully packaged and touching in the personal way the filmmaker refers to her own mother, who died on her first trip to Israel. An irritating technical drawback, however, is the intrusiveness with which the English-lingo subtitles are presented, especially when translating the Israeli-produced films. Instead of the usual subtitles, the translations here are, quite unnecessarily, printed on wide blue bands that irritatingly obscure almost a third of the image. In all other respects, the film displays solid production values.

Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema

Docu – Australia

Production

A Sharmill Distributors release of an Australian Film Finance Corp. presentation of an Amber Films production, in association with Noga Communications, Avro, SBSI, ZDF, ARTE, Film Victoria. Produced, directed, written by Monique Schwarz.

Crew

Camera (color), Ellery Ryan; editor, Uri Mizrahi; music, Martin Friedel; production designer, Georgina Campbell; costume designer, Jane Hyland; sound, Chris Izzard, Lloyd Carrick; line producer, Penny Robins; associate producer, Bertha Rubin. Reviewed on videocassette, Leura, Australia, Oct. 5, 2001. Running time: 73 MIN.
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