Considered a "modern-day Joan of Arc" in Israel but relatively little-known elsewhere, Hungarian youth Hannah Senesh left the safety of Palestine in 1944 to volunteer on a doomed paratrooper mission to rescue Jews in her home country.

Considered a “modern-day Joan of Arc” in Israel but relatively little-known elsewhere, Hungarian youth Hannah Senesh left the safety of Palestine in 1944 to volunteer on a doomed paratrooper mission to rescue Jews in her home country. Senesh was a budding writer, and her poems and diary entries add flavor to an already dramatic tale in Roberta Grossman’s “Blessed Is the Match.” Mixing interviews, archival materials and re-enactment sequences, with Joan Allen voicing correspondence from Senesh’s mother, this engrossing docu should have a long life in educational outlets after fest exposure and limited theatrical play.

Laid to rest with full military honors in the new Israeli state six years after her mission, Senesh was just 23 when she was executed by Nazi occupiers. It was an unlikely fate for the well-off daughter of a popular Budapest playwright (who died when she was a child), educated in private schools. Senesh had never experienced anti-Semitism until she attended a Protestant high school at the time that Hungary, under pressure from Germany, was beginning to apply some of the restricting laws toward Jews already well in effect elsewhere in Europe.

Shocked by the injustice, she became a Zionist at 17 in 1938, informing mother Catherine that she intended to leave for Palestine as soon as possible to attend an agricultural institute, explaining, “There are already too many intellectuals (there).”

With her brother safe for the time being in France, and mom likewise at home (the Hungarian government refused Nazi calls for its Jewish citizens until the Germans took over), Senesh threw herself into kibbutz life with typical fervor. (One surviving co-worker calls her “intimidating,” while another admits, “I didn’t like her. I admired her.”)

But news of mass killings arrived with each new wave of refugees, and once communication with both sibling and parent was cut off, Senesh became determined to return. She was one of just three women selected for a group that would fly behind enemy lines with British troops; it would remain WWII’s only outside rescue mission for Jews.

Her team was promptly captured, however. Taken back to Budapest, she was tortured, interrogated and tried by the Gestapo. Grossman builds considerable suspense as her subject’s last weeks are recounted step by step.

There’s some particularly emotional testimony from four of Hannah’s former cellmates, who were impressed by her resourcefulness and courage. Allen’s recitations limn the very strong bond between parent and child; other voice contributors, portraying various relatives and officials, are English-speaking Hungarian thesps.

While staged sequences often have a hackneyed or distracting effect in docus, here they work well enough, the dialogue-free sequences becoming more prominent as the subject’s story runs out of surviving written and pictoral evidence. Well-tuned assembly gains additional impact from Todd Boekelheide’s orchestral score.

Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Production

A Katahdin Foundation production. Produced by Lisa Thomas. Executive producer, Marta Kauffman. Co-producer, Sophie Sartain. Directed by Roberta Grossman. Written by Sophie Sartain.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, HD-to-35mm, Super 8-to-35mm), Dyanna Taylor; editor, Blake West; music, Todd Boekelheide; production designer, Frank Gampel; art director, Michal Soun; costume designer, Rona Doron; sound, Amos Zipori; casting, Tracy Lilienfield. Reviewed at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 27, 2008. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Meri Roth, Marcela Nohynkova, Zdenek Kozakovic, Zdenek Astr, Jinrich Hinke, Andrej Polak, Akiva Zasman, Peter Hay, Michael Berenbaum, Eve Charody, Judith Charody, Judy Baumel.

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