Like a defiantly Jewish Aki Kaurismaki with slightly more words, France’s Joseph Morder has fashioned a bittersweet oddity about the joys and pitfalls of history, inertia and nostalgia in “El Cantor.” Strange, episodic tale of a man who returns to the Gallic port city of Le Havre after 30 years in America, boasts dry humor, pleasingly symmetrical framing and an agreeably unsettling undercurrent of loss and partial redemption. Jewish fests — and fests in general — may take a shine to this unconventional ode to the existential doubts of the generation of Jews born just after WWII.
Morder — born in 1949 to Polish parents who met in Caracas, and raised in Ecuador until he reached France at age 12 — has kept a semi-legendary filmed journal since 1967. With some two dozen shorts and unconventional docs to his credit, this marks his first theatrical feature.
Pic unfolds in the form of visual chapters with fade-outs between.
When William (Luis Rego), a dentist, receives a telegram from his cousin Clovis (Lou Castel) announcing he’ll be docking in Le Havre soon, William’s wife Elizabeth (Francoise Michaud), an architect, is annoyed. Her father recently died and she’s in no mood to be a gracious hostess.
Bluntly comic scene in which Elizabeth “welcomes” their long lost guest by practically ordering him to go to a hotel can be read as a sly comment on how nobody’s particularly thrilled to shelter wandering Jews, including other Jews.
Clovis, whose precocious aptitude for (now-forgotten) Yiddish prompted his mother (Alexandra Stewart) to call him “El Cantor” as a child in Ecuador, is pained by the fact his grandfather and father were celebrated cantors who never bothered to pass the ancient melodies on to him.
Cranky prankster Clovis teased his cousin when they were boys. They’re soon enjoying escapades in the city’s peculiar and fetchingly lensed urban landscape. Their trip to a club where an arresting singer (Talila) performs in Yiddish has a hint of early David Lynch about it.
Pic is a quirky addition to the ranks of films that address the post-Shoah Jewish experience that one needn’t be Jewish to appreciate.