Religion and art have a complicated history. Together they’ve been responsible for some of the great masterworks of history — the Sistine Chapel, Chagall’s stained glass, the Dome of the Rock — but they’ve also produced their fair share of eye-poppingly awful faith-rock bands and a surprising number of Kirk Cameron evangelical movies.
But if Cameron’s work is usually seen as religion-first, then the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival’s focus has always been more diverse. Now in its 11th year, the two-week festival is screening in a variety of area venues from March 31 to April 14. Judaism may be at the bottom of it all, but the films chosen to appear in the festival also probe the wider ideas of Jewish identity, community, and history, giving filmgoers — of course, you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy these wonderful films — a richer story than a mere fire-and-brimstone tale of sin and redemption.
Kicking things off this year are two larger-profile feature films. On Thursday night at 7 p.m., Dough will screen as the lead-off film of the fest at West Springfield’s Rave Cinemas. It stars Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean) as widower Nat Dayan, a baker struggling to save his failing London shop. With an aging clientele and disinterested sons, it seems that he will lose his business — until his young Muslim assistant Ayyash (Jerome Holder), a refugee from Darfur, accidentally drops his stash of weed into the challah dough. With their new recipe in place, the loaves start flying out the door. Fittingly, there will be an opening night dessert reception at the theater before the film begins; come hungry.
On Saturday night, the action moves to the Smith College campus, where A Tale of Love and Darkness will have its Western Mass premiere at the school’s Sweeney Concert Hall. The directorial debut of Natalie Portman, this adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir takes on a lot — beginning in the 1940s in British Palestine, and leading into the birth of a new nation and national identity. For Oz and his family, it was a time of struggle on many levels — his refugee parents’ marriage was failing just as the state of Israel was being born. And while the story is told from the point of view of a young Amos, it is his mother Fania (Portman) who is the true center of the tale. The film will be introduced by Justin Cammy, associate professor of Jewish Studies and Comparative Literature at Smith.
Another Valley premiere hosted by the festival is Imber’s Left Hand, screening this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. (One of the joys of a festival like the PVJFF is that it takes you into unexpected venues, widening not only our sense of our community, but also our idea of what makes for a theater.) In Richard Kane’s award-winning documentary, he charts the later career of painter Jon Imber, who was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) after a long and successful career. Unwilling to give up on painting, he first switches to his left hand, then to a technique that keeps both hands fastened together at his waist. In four short months, Imber paints over a hundred portraits, steadfastly finding a way to pursue his passion. Director Kane will be on hand for a post-screening discussion, and Shelburne Falls artist Nancy Katz will introduce the film.
There are plenty of other films in the festival that are worth a look; too many, in fact, to fit in one column. With screenings up and down the Valley from the Basketball Hall of Fame to Shelburne Falls, many with post-screening discussions with visiting filmmakers, there is sure to be something notable nearby. For the full slate, be sure to check pvjff.org, where you’ll find a schedule of screenings and other news.
Also this week: To return to the Kirk Cameron side of the coin for a moment, God’s Not Dead 2 is coming to Hadley’s Cinemark Theaters this week. Another in a new tradition of bald-faced evangelical movie-making that has followed in Cameron’s steps, this sequel is a follow-up to a film in which an atheist philosophy professor is beaten in a “Does God Exist” debate by a evangelical student — the student’s clinching question is “Why do you hate God?”; it turns out the professor “hates God” because his Mom died. He himself is then hit by a car. As he lays dying in the street, a passing priest converts him to Christianity, saving his soul in the nick of time. Part two of this weird persecution/savior complex plays out in a court case involving a teacher (Melissa Joan Hart) who stands to lose her job after quoting Jesus in the classroom. However, if you’re looking for any sort of nuance, balance, or critical thinking, don’t look here; the message of these wafer-thin films is simply that God is Good, and the rest of us need to wake up. Me? I’m hitting the snooze button.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.