It has been quite a while since we have examined the current state of the cinema in this column. This is partially because contemporary cinema frequently chooses not to venture across the nebulous line which divides entertainment from art, and partially because the editors have choices of a large number of pieces written about films, so it seems more productive to spend our one page per week on areas of the performing arts which are apt to be neglected.
But this week, I've seen a film which deserves our attention, so this week, the Critical Eye goes to the movies!
We have the space to examine an additional offering, and we're still working to share our backlog of Winks, but I want to focus on ''Sarah's Key.''
Kristin Scott Thomas plays a contemporary journalist who finds her own family was profoundly affected by the Holocaust, in the film “Sarah's Key.”
Few single events have changed the world as much as World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, which was contained within the history of the war. As a result, factual books, novels, films and other examinations of elements of the war are so numerous, they have almost become cliches.
On the other hand, of course, this is a series of events which took place during the lives of people who are alive today, and within our own culture. The entire world has compelling reasons for making sure they never happen again.
The challenge, therefore, for artistic works about that period is to help readers or - in this case - viewers, to grasp these events in personal terms. We read a newspaper story which tells us more than 4,000 people were killed in a recent tsunami, and our minds automatically think, ''That's too bad.'' But we don't feel the loss unless someone we care about experienced the tragedy and teaches us how it feels to be involved in such an event.
''Sarah's Key'' is such a film, although it operates with one large strike against it. Made in France, by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, much of it takes place in French, meaning that we have to read the English subtitles at the bottom of the screen, unless we are fluent in French. Some of us just haven't taught ourselves to deal with that. Others don't want to be part of a work of art. We wish to be mildly amused, and to drop in and out as the whim strikes us.
The film takes place in two realities, which it spends its duration trying to demonstrate are the same reality, only with different circumstances.
The Sarah of the title is a young girl - perhaps 10 years old. She lived in Paris, in 1942, two years after the Nazis had overrun half of France.
When that happened, the half of the country which was not occupied, formed a government which was officially independent, yet its survival depended upon their willingness to dance to the tune which was called from Berlin. The result was that the French had some degree of self-control, while Hitler could use the troops which would have been occupying half of France, to extend his empire, elsewhere.
In 1942, the French puppet government gave in to pressure from Hitler to round up a significant number of Jews and other targets of the Nazi persecution, and to send them to death camps in Germany and elsewhere to be murdered.
One such ''rounding up'' involved gathering more than 13,000 victims into a bicycle racing track, in a suburb to the east of Paris. The track was called the ''Vel' d'Hiv,'' pronounced ''Vel-DEEV.'' Until that time, only men and boys had been arrested.
Sarah and her mother had rehearsed what they would do, if the police arrived. They would insist that Sarah's father was out of town on business, and they would hide her younger brother. When the knock at the door eventually happened, they carried out their plan, thinking that the women in the family wouldn't be taken away, or at worst, not for long. That seemed like the safest thing to do.
Instead, they were taken to the Vel' D'Hiv, for transport on to permanent absence. Sarah held the key to the cupboard in which her brother was locked, without food or water, in her hand.
Much of the first half of the film deals with Sarah trying to escape so she could let her brother out.
The contemporary half of the film concerns an American journalist, portrayed by British actor Kristin Scott Thomas. Ms. Thomas's character is assigned by a magazine to write a history of the Vel' d'Hiv. The more she investigates what happened nearly 60 years ago, the more she understands that her husband's family played an important part in it, which makes the story of Sarah and her family exactly the window through the numbers and the facts, which could make contemporary people feel and understand.
Her father-in-law and his parents had moved into the apartment which was vacated when Sarah's family was arrested. It was in their home that the cupboard was finally unlocked.
She gets a strong sense of how her in-laws and the French in general, want so very much to lay the blame for the terrible things which happened at the Germans' door, but to refuse to accept how their own failure to resist it and to defend against it, played such an important role in its ever having happened.
Her relatives hadn't arrested Sarah. They hadn't denied her food, or water, or informed the authorities where she lived. All they did was stand by and do nothing, while enormous injustice was taking place. It wasn't the Germans or the Gestapo who were arresting those people. It was a French policeman who stepped on an apple, craved by a starving child.
And of course, that exact same feeling was being brought to pressure the journalist to abandon her research of the situation.
''Why do we want to dig up all that old business?'' she is asked.
''My grandmother is in a nursing home and doesn't have long to live. Can't we preserve her peace of mind, for the few weeks she might have left?''
But the truth has been proven, a thousand times over, all throughout history. However altruistic the official reasons, when a government, or a business, or a church wants to treat some people as not being worth the same rights as others - Oh, just a few rights, and not important ones, and that's the way it has always been, and we all know what people like that are really like - the situation, like a tumor, is either corrected, or it gradually grows, until you have a Vel' D'Hiv, and an Auschwitz, and all the rest.
The performances in the film are excellent. The photography, by Pascal Ridao, is beautiful, yet it strongly re-inforces the reality in the plot. The forced closeness with strangers, during the arrest, for example. The coldness and isolation as the reporter visits Holocaust museums and national libraries, while it seems everyone is against her.
In the film, the reporter manages to find the surviving members of Sarah's family, and to insert herself back into their story, and to make it her own, as well. The film received a 75-percent positive rating from critics in the ''Rotten Tomatoes'' website, and an 85-percent positive rating from the public in general.
Those who disliked it perceived that the modern woman's family problems were being treated as equal and parallel stories to the Holocaust story, while they felt the reporter's struggle is vastly less intense or significant than Sarah's. Those who liked the film felt that the reporter's story demonstrated both the negative results of people refusing to deal with the earlier conflict, and the positive possibilities from accepting and dealing with the struggle.
It is a wonderful education for anyone who would genuinely play a positive role in the world.
''Sarah's Key'' is taken from a novel by the same title, written by French novelist Tatiana de Rosnay. The book's title in its original French publication was ''Her Name Was Sarah.'' I have read that it was originally published in English with that title, then was changed, to connect it with the successful film.
The film is still in theaters around the country, and was just released on DVD a few days ago. There are several copies of the book available for borrowing from the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, and at least one copy of the DVD.
30 MINUTES OR LESS
Since we seem to be dealing with social justice, our next film for discussion comes to the same end from a very different direction.
In 2003, a group of small-time crooks in Erie, Pa., kidnapped a pizza delivery man named Brian Douglas Wells. They attached a small bomb around his neck, and told him that he must rob a bank on Peach Street, not far from the Millcreek Mall, or they would explode the bomb and kill him.
The man attempted to perform the robbery, but the bomb did explode, killing him. The case continues to be debated to the present day, with some people claiming that Wells participated in planning the robbery, and others insisting that the police waited too long to call the bomb squad to try to disable the device. One of the crooks was eventually sentenced to 45 years in prison for his role in the event, and in March of this year, a woman was sentenced to 30 years for her participation.
The incident has inspired a number of television series episodes, the creators of most of which insist that they hadn't heard of the case and just thought up the story of a pizza deliverer with a bomb collar entirely on their own.
Earlier this year, Columbia Pictures released a feature film which stars Jesse Eisenberg - best known for his leading role in ''The Social Network'' - and Danny McBride, which uses almost exactly the same circumstance. Eisenberg plays a delivery driver who works for one of those restaurants which guarantee that pizzas will be delivered in 30 minutes or less, or the pizza is free. In general, the film is one of those beer-drinking, intestinal gas-leaking comedies which have become so very popular in recent years.
Needless to say, the family of Wells finds the film offensive, rather than funny.
The film doesn't need analysis from me. You like that sort of thing, or your don't. But it deals with an event which happened very close to our area, so I wanted to point it out to you.
It's still in some theaters, and the DVD is due to be released before the end of November.
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Although the newspaper has chosen - very wisely, in my opinion - to announce and celebrate occasions when people younger than college age make excursions into the arts, but not to review them, I recently did have an experience with young performers which I wanted to celebrate in these pages:
Last week, I was invited to a performance at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, by the organization called the Junior Guilders.
The group is directed by Helen Merrill, choreographed by Tiffany Wakely Heintzman, and accompanied and given music direction by Lucille Miller.
The performance was called ''Honk,'' which was also the name of the 90-minute musical play which was presented before the intermission. It was based on the story of ''The Ugly Duckling.''
It had just an enormous cast of young singers and dancers, and nearly every one of them took part in almost every single number. Following intermission, there was an additional 60-minute production in which Santa's elves convinced the jolly saint that even though they were incredibly rude to him, they still needed him to have a happy holiday. This one also had a full, full stage and most performers were in every number. And, they performed it all three separate times.
The amount of work which must go into such an overflowing presentation is staggering, and praise is deserved for the performers, the adult presenters, and the parents who made all that work possible. And, it's all done for the love of the art. Nobody is being paid.
Congratulations to everyone involved.