Blandly misleading title is virtually the only weak point in “Journey to Jerusalem,” told through the eyes to two children who take up with a group of traveling players while on the run from Hitler. Vivacious and original, pic should be helped by helmer Ivan Nichev’s heightened rep after his fest hit “After the End of the World.” “Journey,” submitted by Bulgaria for last year’s Oscar competish, has enough wit and universal appeal (along the lines of Czech sleeper “Divide We Fall”) to merit a fair-sized rollout for adventurous distribbers.
Disarmingly warmhearted considering the subject, “Journey” follows German-Jewish siblings David and Elza (Georgy Georgiev, Simona Staykova), who have fled Nazi Berlin with their aged uncle. When he dies quietly on the train outside of Sofia, the kids get off by themselves.
Speaking no Bulgarian (only some dubbed German), they fall in with the first people who show interest — a troupe of itinerant actors on its way to the sticks.
In particular, the kids are sheltered by singer-dancer-magician’s assistant Zara (Elena Petrova), a dark-eyed beauty whose loudly ticking biological clock goes unheard by longtime b.f. Dimi, an aging Lothario who once would have been played by John Barrymore or Marcello Mastroianni. Mustachioed Alexander Morfov is unforgettable in the constantly shifting role. The wild card in the trio of players is Sami (Vasil Vasilev-Zueka), a long-faced sad sack with a resourceful eye in difficult times, although at least half his plans (with rich women or poor Jews, in two notable cases) go painfully awry.
After awhile, the conflicted thesps determine to help the sibs get to Palestine, where they have relatives, but the ad-hoc family faces a formidable challenge in the form of a new Gestapo chief (Michael Lade) who gradually susses out who the kids are. His weakness, however, is a growing ardor for Zara.
Some auds may find the Nazi character, perfectly judged by Teutonic regular Lade, a tad too sympathetic in this German-Bulgarian co-production. But plot twists well establish the moral ambiguities of all concerned, except for the big-eyed kiddies, who remain somewhat underdeveloped considering how much they drive events.
Pic’s constant flow of songs, colorful set-pieces, sharp gags, and exciting locales make for an edge-of-the-seat ride. Georgi Nikolov’s rich lensing, flooded by footlights and afternoon sun, adds a lot to an already compelling package.