The Vicarious Life

There is something magical and glamorous about the Jerusalem Film Festival. Not that you'd ever get confused and think that you're at Cannes - there are, for example, no red carpets, no evening dress, no beach within miles. What there is is one of the world's most beautiful locations, the long stone Cinematheque complex that is perched over the Hinnom Valley, just across from the western wall of the Old City, with the Tower of David in sight.

As the sun sets at day's end, the oppressive summer heat is replaced by the cool, restorative evening breeze that is yet one more reason to live in Jerusalem. Later, when it's dark, free, live music is presented on the newly expanded patio at the entrance to the Cinematheque, and guests mill around and soak up the atmosphere.

Clearly, a lot of the attendees at the screenings are imported from other parts of the country - I'm told some even come from abroad - otherwise, there's no explanation for the presence of so many well-dressed and attractive people in Israel's frumpiest city. So long as the proportion of us schleppers is kept to a minimum - and there seems to be a self-selection process at play - the festival will be able to keep up appearances.

Today, sitting in screening room 1, I took a trip some 70 kms to the east, to Amman. Why was I surprised, watching "Captain Abu Raed," to see that the terrain, the weather, even the architecture in the Jordanian capital are so similar to Jerusalem's?

Director Amin Matalqa's film is said to be the first Jordanian feature film in 50 years, but its worth extends far beyond the novelty of its being a well-made, naturalistic drama in Arabic. Just as the Arab world would have to begin considering Israel in a different light if its citizens could see recent Israeli movies like "Broken Wings" or "Aviva, My Love," - two dramas about families contending with life rather than political statements - one can only hope that "Captain Abu Raed" will make it to Israeli TV one of these days.

Nadim Masalha is the title character, a man probably in his early 70s who works as a janitor at Amman's airport. Abu Raed is well-read and educated, but his life has been marked by tragedy, which is the only explanation we get for his career choice. When he dons a captain's cap that he finds in the garbage at the airport, the children in his working-class neighborhood decide that he's a pilot, and he decides not to correct them. They begin gravitating to him like the pied piper after he begins telling stories of his "travels," which are as vicarious as my journey to Amman.

But "Captain Abu Raed" is not a Jordanian "Catch Me If You Can," Steven Spielberg's 2002 picture about a real-life con man who talked his way into a 727 cockpit with less flight training than Mohammed Atta. By the end of Matalqa's movie, Abu Raed still hasn't been in the air. And the kids of his neighborhood have learned first-hand that he spends his days cleaning toilets and floors. Though "Captain Abu Raed" has Hollywood-style production values, it doesn't have the tidy resolution of an American movie, and its ending is heartening while giving viewers quite a jolt. In the screening I attended, they applauded with appreciation as the lights came up, and filed out in a stunned silence.

Charlie Kaufman's "Synechdoche, New York" also is well-suited for Jerusalem: It's brainy, enigmatic, amazingly funny, and very Jewish, even if its tortured anti-hero, Cadon Cotard, isn't. Jewish screenwriter-director Kaufman and the actor playing Cadon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, bring an existentialistically troubled sensibility to the movie that is both richly stimulating and enormously frustrating. If you felt that Kaufman's writing was brilliant in "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - at the same time those movies tested your patience as they refused to end - you may want to scream at "Synechdoche," which just keeps on twisting and turning, like a mitochondrion, never letting up in its surrealistic take on life and theater, which are indistinguishable in Kaufman's telling.

A "synechdoche" is a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole, or vice-versa, and Cadon (who lives in Schenectady, New York - get it?), who is so afraid of dying that he won't give himself an opportunity to live, allows his life as theatrical director to stand in for the life he allows to pass him by. He's an Olympic-class hypochondriac, and a director of great pretense, but Cadon is played with such depth and feeling by Hoffman that we can't help but like him - and suffer with him.

Don't assume that this picture will be coming soon to a theater near you, even here in cerebral Israel. It was screened in Jerusalem without Hebrew subtitles, although it does have a local distributor - which is more than can be said about the U.S., where it still does not appear to have a date for even a limited release. So original and weird is it that it almost defies description. So if my non-description hasn't scared you away, then grab it when it's out on DVD. It's a trip.