I was still on the road to Jerusalem — where I had been invited to serve as a member of the documentary jury at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival — last Thursday, when the first air raid siren sounded. “Can you hear it?” asked the driver charged with transporting me and two other American journalists from the Tel Aviv airport as he rolled down the window. Apparently, protocol in these situations is to pull over, exit the vehicle, and lie down on the ground. But our driver proceeded apace, noting with delight that there was now much less traffic on the highway.
Israelis seem sanguine about the rocket attacks. But the festival saw some guests cancel and the opening night gala had to be rescheduled. Otherwise the festival’s opening weekend went off without any visible hitches. To be sure, the mood has been occasionally tense: on Saturday afternoon, during an otherwise splendid walking tour of the Old City organized by the Jerusalem Press Club, an Arab restaurateur stepped forth from his stoop and loudly berated the crowd of two dozen international guests. “You Americans and British support Israel, but for how long? They are killing our children in Gaza!” he shouted. To which the Press Club’s cool-tempered director, a retired Israeli Air Force Colonel named Uri Dromi, responded that he — like many Israelis who support a two-state solution — was not at all unsympathetic to the restaurateur’s point of view.
But tensions aside, the streets of Jerusalem are filled with tourists and holy men, and the screening rooms of the Jerusalem Cinematheque (the festival’s host venue) are packed with filmgoers flocking to an eclectic selection of new Israeli films and international festival favorites. While a couple of scheduled honorees, including the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, opted to stay at home, legendary French producer Marin Karmitz showed up undeterred to conduct a master class, as did Korean helmer Park Chan-wook, while Spike Jonze is due to arrive later in the week for a 15th anniversary screening of “Being John Malkovich.”
“What’s it like attending a film festival in a war zone?” a concerned friend emailed from L.A. A live-action “Waltz With Bashir” perhaps? Or “Salvador” with falafel? The reality is closer to a Sundance or Toronto but with pre-screening announcements that include directions to the nearest bomb shelter. And when a siren does sound, as it did again on Saturday evening just before the local premiere of director Hilla Medalia’s documentary “The Go-Go Boys” — a loving but not entirely hagiographic portrait of Cannon Films impresarios Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — the crowds make their way to the shelter in a far calmer, more orderly fashion than what one encounters at the average American sporting event or rock concert.
Well, the Jerusalem festival is 31 years old this year, and it has weathered its share of political storms (including the first and second intifadas). In earlier years, there were controversies over holding screenings on the Sabbath and programming films sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. In 2010, Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffman canceled scheduled appearances after Israel’s controversial raid on six Gaza-bound aid ships in the Mediterranean. That the festival exists at all and has continued to thrive is the achievement of its founder, Lia van Leer, a patron saint of Israeli film culture whose lengthy resume includes having founded the Haifa and Jerusalem Cinematheques, as well as the Israeli Film Archive. And though van Leer stepped down from her post as festival CEO in 2008, at age 89 she remains a highly visible presence at screenings and other events, and a clear role model for current CEO Noa Regev, who assumed her post only last December.
Perhaps inevitably, numerous films screened during Jerusalem’s opening weekend seemed to comment directly or indirectly on current events. At a Q&A following the premiere of “Pit Bulls Flesh and Blood,” a documentary about the efforts of a former Israeli cop to rehabilitate dogs rescued from the illegal fighting underworld, the film’s subject, Yuval Mendlowitz, said he hoped people would learn to treat each other better than they did the dogs in the film. And in a decidedly hopeful anecdote from “The Go-Go Boys,” Israeli actor Yehoram Gaon recounts how, for one sequence in Golan’s hit 1974 musical “Kazablan,” the director recruited several busloads of Arab teenagers as extras, who joined their Jewish co-stars in singing a song entitled “We Are All Jews.”
Other films took on uncanny resonances simply by being screened in such close proximity to the Holy Land. Indeed, at what other festival can you one day walk the actual Via Dolorosa and the next see German director Dietrich Bruggemann’s Berlinale prize winner “Stations of the Cross,” about a pious teenager who fancies herself a saint in the making? If Bruggemann’s film is an undeniably impressive but overly calculating endeavor, John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” (which I managed to miss at both Sundance and Berlin) is the genuine article: a profoundly unsettled film about one man’s search for faith in a modern spiritual vacuum. That man is a parish priest (Brendan Gleeson) in an Irish coastal town whose life is threatened by an anonymous confessor in the film’s opening scene and who spends the next seven days assessing various suspects as well as his own deep-set doubts about the effectiveness of his life’s work.
McDonagh’s film (which opens Aug. 1 from Fox Searchlight) takes place in the long shadow cast by the sex-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, the decades of religion-fed violence in Northern Ireland, corporate greed run amok and other social plagues both timeless and of the moment. But it is also an update of French novelist Georges Bernanos’ 1936 “Diary of a Country Priest,” about a clergyman who suffers in both body and soul for the malaise of his flock. The novel was adapted into the 1951 film of the same name by Robert Bresson, who made of it one of the greatest of all films about spiritual crisis. That’s a very high bar for any film to set for itself, but “Calvary” comes breathtakingly close, in no small part due to Gleeson’s torrential performance as a man of great virtue who looks at the world around him and wonders if he has been forsaken.
The 2014 Jerusalem Film Festival runs through July 20.