Historical epics, contemporary indies, and a restored classic are among the films that explore Jewish history, family, and cultural identity in the National Center for Jewish Film’s 22nd Annual Film Festival, running May 7-19 at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Contemporary multicultural Brooklyn is the setting for Brazilian director Fernando Grostein Andrade’s “Abe” (May 8, Coolidge; May 17, MFA). It’s about 12 year-old aspiring chef Abraham “Abe” Solomon-Odeh (Noah Schnapp, of “Stranger Things”), who uses creative fusion recipes to bridge divides between his mother’s Israeli-Jewish and father’s Palestinian-Muslim families. Abe’s supportive mom, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk), and dad, Amir (Arian Moayed), are at odds over how to raise their child within a fractious extended family. Once the intrepid Abe befriends Brazilian chef Chico (Seu Jorge) whose cuisine blends South American, New York, and Jamaican cooking, Abe attempts to unite his warring family over a lavish meal.
What food does for “Abe,” sports does for “Back to Maracana” (May 12, MFA), another intergenerational tale about family, culture, and identity. Asaf Goldstien plays Robert, a divorced dad and soccer fanatic who travels in a van with his father and his son as they follow Brazil’s quest for the 2014 World Cup. Israeli-Argentine director Jorge Gurvich will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion.
The centerpiece event is a new 35mm restoration of “The Mortal Storm” (May 7, Coolidge), a 1940 anti-Nazi melodrama from MGM, directed by Frank Borzage, the first recipient of a best director Oscar, for “Seventh Heaven” (1927). Set in 1930s Germany, “The Mortal Storm” stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in their fourth and final film together. According to NCJF co-director Lisa Rivo, it’s one of just two Hollywood films made during the war — the other, “None Shall Escape” (1944), screened at last year’s festival — that explicitly identified Jews as victims of the Nazis. This is just the second showing of the print, which was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Brandeis professor Thomas Doherty, author of “Hollywood and Hitler,” will be on hand for a post-screening discussion.
Another highlight of this year’s festival is Sameh Zoabi’s satire “Tel Aviv on Fire” (May 11 and 19, MFA), about a Palestinian soap opera writer. He has a fraught relationship with an Israeli checkpoint guard who tries to influence the plot of the show, which shares its title with the film. Zoabi’s debut, “Man Without a Cell Phone,” screened in the 2011 Boston Palestine Film Festival.
Danish director Bille August’s lush epic drama “A Fortunate Man” (May 10, Coolidge; May 18 MFA) is based on Nobel Prize winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s semi-autobiographical novel, considered a major work of Danish literature. Set in 19th-century Copenhagen, it follows ambitious Peter Sidenius (Esben Smed) as he flees his strict Lutheran family to pursue an engineering career. He quickly climbs the social ladder, thanks to his friendship with the Salomons, a wealthy Jewish family, and his romance with eldest daughter Jakobe Salomon (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal).
The Holocaust is the subject of two very different dramas about real-life figures. “Sobibor” (May 15, MFA), from director and star Konstantin Khabenskiy, unflinchingly depicts the 1943 uprising of about 300 Jewish prisoners, led by Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky (Khabenskiy), a Jewish Red Army lieutenant imprisoned at the Sobibor death camp in Poland.
“The Light of Hope” (May 12 and 17, MFA) from Spain is director Silvia Quer’s drama about Elisabeth Eidenbenz (Noémie Schmidt), a Swiss nurse who founded a maternity hospital in France at the Spanish border. During World War II, Eidenbenz and her female co-workers saved the lives of some 600 infants, many of them children of Jewish refugees. Eidenbenz was honored as Righteous among the Nations by the Israeli government, a designation reserved for Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.