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The best movies about interfaith relationships--romantic and otherwise--are a lot like good relationships themselves. Start with an acknowledgment of differences; add a degree of attraction; and top it all off with a heaping helping of humanity and acceptance. In cinema as in life, empathy and generosity are essential.
|In The Way We Were, Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand were the schmaltziest pair of lovers this side of Love Story.|
What follows is my personal pantheon: my top 10 interfaith movies. Each has an unmistakable moral dimension, and is guaranteed to elicit discussion after the credits. (An essential part of the viewing experience in my house, and hopefully yours.) They are all about responsibility--to one’s principles, one’s sense of right, and one’s family. Five are foreign films, and three of the 10 are set during or just after World War II. They aren’t all comedies, obviously, nor are they all suitable for young children. Without further ado, here they are in chronological order:
Grand Illusion (1937) Jean Renoir’s antiwar masterpiece centers on a group of French P.O.W.s during World War I. In his first camp, a working-class hero (Jean Gabin) crosses paths with a wealthy, cultured Jew (Marcel Dalio), but they don’t have much in common. Thrown together again by circumstances late in the film, they forge a profound, and profoundly moving, understanding. Perennially ranked among the 10 best films of all time, Grand Illusion combines an unflinching view of human nature with an enlightened declaration of tolerance.
|In The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Jewish Lenny (Charles Grodin) falls for non-Jewish Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) on his honeymoon--and dumps his Jewish wife.|
The Heartbreak Kid (1972) Elaine May’s squirm-inducing grass-is-greener comedy stars Charles Grodin as a nice Jewish fellow, on his honeymoon with his nice Jewish wife, who falls for blonde beauty Cybill Shepherd. Lenny can’t resist the siren song of the exotic, but there’s less to his new flame than meets the eye. Not to be confused with the recent lame remake with Ben Stiller.
The Way We Were (1973) Hollywood reached its schmaltzy zenith with this opposites-attract period romance starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford at their blow-dried peaks. She’s a Jewish activist, he’s an All-American jock turned writer. Their friends don’t think their high-flying relationship has a chance, and by the end of this three-hankie rollercoaster ride--what, you think I’m going to give away the ending?
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) Richard Dreyfuss plays an aggressive, ambitious, hyperactive Jewish kid in 1940s Montreal in this savagely hilarious adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel. Duddy’s non-Jewish girlfriend does her best to accommodate his self-centeredness, but he grows up a little too late. (Ted Kotcheff successfully adapted his second Richler story, “Joshua Then and Now,” nine years later with James Woods and Alan Arkin.)
Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) Set in a Catholic boarding school in Occupied France in 1944, Louis Malle’s powerful slice of autobiography turns on the brief acquaintance of two bright boys who wish for nothing more than a normal adolescence. The film is told from the perspective of a lad who’s never met a Jew; the other boy is a Jew whom the priests are hiding from the Nazis.
|Aimée & Jaguar tells the painful true story of a charismatic Jewish woman (Maria Shrader, R) who falls in love with a seemingly sedate Nazi housewife (Juliane Kohler).|
Enemies, A Love Story (1989) Paul Mazursky’s gorgeous and haunting adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel unfolds on the Lower East Side after the war. Ron Silver plays a libidinous Holocaust survivor running between his wife (the non-Jewish Polish woman who hid him during the war) and his lover (Lena Olin). Life throws him another curve when the wife (Anjelica Huston) he thought had died in the war reappears.
Aimée & Jaguar (1999) Based on a true story, this tense German drama explores the unexpected affair between a Jewish woman (Maria Shrader) and the wife of a Nazi (Juliane Kohler) during the Third Reich. For lovers in a dangerous time, discretion is as essential as passion.
Liberty Heights (1999) It’s Baltimore in the ‘50s, a couple years before Hairspray, and curious young people are moving beyond their own cosseted cultures. Barry Levinson’s surprisingly tender autobiographical tale (echoing his great Diner) stars Adrien Brody and Ben Foster as brothers spellbound by their first crushes on non-Jewish girls. Parental disapproval, class differences and racial tension are just a few of the obstacles the guys face.
God Is Great and I’m Not (2001) This fizzy, frenetic French romantic comedy stars the doe-eyed Audrey Taotou (Amelie) as a non-Jewish gal looking for spirituality who enthusiastically embraces the rituals of Judaism, to the embarrassment and chagrin of her pathologically assimilated veterinarian boyfriend. This is one of the few interfaith romances, along with Ira & Abby (2007), where the woman drives the story.
|In 1950s Baltimore, Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster, R) nurses a crush on Sylvia (Rebekah Johsnon, L)--to the consternation of his parents, in Liberty Heights.|
Monsieur Ibrahim (2003) In early-‘60s Paris, a precocious Jewish teenager is befriended, and mentored by, the Muslim shopkeeper (Omar Sharif) across the street. By turns ribald and tender, this unpredictable film ultimately leads into profoundly spiritual territory.
I promised 10, but I can’t resist sneaking an eleventh onto the list. The altogether remarkable Czech film Divided We Fall (2000) centers on a couple hiding a Jewish man during World War II, with both dramatic and comedic consequences. This audacious film addresses the Holocaust, the moral choices of collaborators and resisters, and the relationship between non-Jews and their Jewish neighbors in a way that would not have been possible even 20 years ago.
Another outstanding film--also with a Czech flavor, coincidentally--is regrettably unavailable in any home-video format. In 1991, at the age of 88, the renowned director Jiri Weiss emerged from retirement with a final masterpiece. His poignant love story Martha & Me unfolds in the 1930s, and stars Michel Piccoli as a Czech Jewish doctor who marries his zaftig non-Jewish maid (Marianne Sagebrecht). The film received a miniscule, flubbed U.S. release in 1995, and I include it on the off chance that one day it will surface on DVD.
The omission of Annie Hall (1977), incidentally, is not evidence of this critic’s obtuseness but of a desire to make room for a lesser-known title in the Top 10. After all, hasn’t everyone seen it? Nonetheless, its importance should not be underestimated. Arthur Miller (Marilyn Monroe’s third husband) and Bob Dylan notwithstanding, Woody Allen gets all the credit for making smart Jewish guys sexy. In addition, the dynamic between Allen and Diane Keaton has become a template for countless romantic comedies in the ensuing three decades (but it’s the rare writer who can approach Allen in his prime).
It seems we are well on our way to another group of 10. So let’s complete the second team with The Shop On Main Street (1965), The Old Man and the Boy (1967), Fiddler On the Roof (1971), The Last Metro (1980), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Quiz Show (1994), Rosenstrasse (2003) and Ira & Abby (2007).
That should keep your DVD player humming until at least Passover and Easter--of 2009.