The Kansas City Jewish Film Festival covers all types of relationships.

Lovers and Other Strangers 

The Kansas City Jewish Film Festival covers all types of relationships.

You're our last boy, and most of us were exterminated," a prominent Jewish banker tells his gay nephew. "Don't let our name die." Accompanied by an incentive of 10 million francs, this lament becomes an offer too tempting and too laden with shame to ignore in Jean-Jacques Zilberman's 1998 film L'Homme Est une Femme Comme les Autres, translated on these shores into Man Is a Woman. Though it's one of the films in this year's Jewish Film Festival, which runs March 24 to 31, it wouldn't be out of place in either a French or gay/lesbian film festival. What its appearance here with two other gay-themed films suggests is that Judaism outshines other religions in its unconditional embrace of its entire community.

Antoine de Caunes plays Simon, a musician who, in the film's opening scene, drunkenly barrels into his male cousin's wedding to declare that his love for him is beyond familial. The wedding guest most intrigued by handsome Simon is not the cousin (he's used to Simon's goo-goo eyes) but Rosalie, a Yiddish folk singer played by one of France's most interesting faces, Elsa Zylberstein. Simon's uncle's offer propels Simon and Rosalie's tricky courtship and complicated marriage, a story that sends them to New York's Hasidic community, where Rosalie's family lives and works. Her father isn't thrilled with Simon, but her gay brother is; the "introverted and very delicate" Daniel is on to Simon and wants him for himself.

Despite Simon's sexuality and the weighted lucre, the couple do become enamored of each other. Their first kiss, though, portends that this marriage of convenience is not one made in heaven: While Rosalie shuts her eyes and falls into some kind of Cinderella fantasy, Simon's eyes dart about in search of witnesses. The film doesn't end sweetly, but neither does it end tragically. Rosalie, especially, matures from a starry-eyed kid to a woman who is smart enough to accept the exceptional quirks of her marriage and parenthood.

Man Is a Woman is similar to Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, which involved a Chinese family instead of a Jewish one. Lee's film is funnier and more commercially appealing, but both succeed at exposing the folly of family pressures when the formula for love and romance has a queer twist. A huge success in France (at one point beating the box office grosses of Titanic), Man Is a Woman also confirms that Zylberstein's quirky beauty hangs on immense talent.

The highlight of the festival, though, may be Eytan Fox's Florentene. Made for Israeli television, Florentene is named for the Bohemian neighborhood of Tel Aviv where the movie is set and consists of six half-hour episodes that aired in 1997 to a mix of fascination and nervousness. "Because commercial television in Israel is still so new, there are not many rules to go by, which is very fortunate for us," Fox told his critics. His show combines Friends' demographics with Tales of the City's unabashed libido. Those who were most chagrined by Florentene felt that characters' having sex on Yom Kippur and a gay character's coming out to his family during Prime Minister Rabin's funeral were too much. Contemporary Israelis responded by making the show a huge hit.

By the close of the first episode, it's easy to see why audiences found the show so infectious. The actors (several of whom are nonprofessionals who responded to a cattle call) quickly stamp their characters with equally distributed assets and foibles and aren't hurt at all by their good looks. Five years out of high school and just out of mandatory military service (two years for the ladies, three for the gentlemen), the group consists of Shira, a children's television host, and her hunky boyfriend, Maor, a gardener with dreams of a coffee shop; Shira's best friends Tutti, a quirky house-cleaner, and Tamon, a budding filmmaker having a sexual identity crisis; and less-featured artists, journalists and musicians. Their success is almost too perfect, but they also share very real doubts, leading mostly to sexual miscalculations and humiliations.

The first episodes begin with such titles as "Rosh Hashana" and "Yom Kippur," while the last three mark the months leading up to and immediately following Rabin's assassination in 1995. Critical junctures of young adulthood -- including infidelities, sexual experimentation and career angst -- unfold to a musical score that mixes Israeli pop with such American sounds as The Bangles' "Eternal Flame." The episodes (in Hebrew with English subtitles and such occasional English utterances as "my ass") are well-written and competently staged, making them the equivalent of an original series aired on HBO. One can only hope the Jewish Film Festival brings the subsequent episodes next year. That the show's unanswered questions will gnaw away at the audience (Will Shira really quit her show and move? Will Tutti and Ukrainian immigrant Sasha overcome the fact that Sasha is married? Will Tamon see his tryst partner again?) speaks to the young cast's charisma and Fox's agility with a camera and a pen.

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