Justice Is Not Denied in “Denial”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When historian Deborah E. Lipstadt walked onto the stage on September 22 for a Q&A after a preview of the film “Denial”, she was asked what it felt like to be portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “It was surreal,” she said with a laugh, noting that the most remarkable part was hearing her own Queens accent perfectly mimed by the English film and theater star.

 

But with that, any light-heartedness faded as discussion turned to her real life role as defendant in a British lawsuit brought by Hitler admirer and “historian” David Irving. After Lipstadt labeled him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, claiming her false statements had harmed his reputation.

 

Her subsequent ten-week legal battle in 2000 to defend herself and establish the “historical truth” that the Holocaust did indeed occur formed the basis of her “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), the book on which playwright David Hare’s script for “Denial” is based.

 

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Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in the true story, “Denial”.

 

As Irving knew, in Britain libel laws favor the plaintiff. The defendant must prove that statements the plaintiff considered libelous, or false, are indeed true. In this case, Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust really happened, and that, therefore, Irving intentionally lied when he insisted there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Nazis had never murdered any Jews.

 

As if this isn’t complicated (and heart wrenching) enough, Lipstadt and her team had two additional stumbling blocks. The first was a lack of physical evidence. The team had to amass their case despite the facts that the Nazis never allowed photographs of prisoners being gassed in Auschwitz and further covered their tracks by destroying the gas chambers.

 

The second was defense counsel’s decision not to allow Lipstadt or any Holocaust survivors to testify for fear that Irving, who was acting as his own attorney, would humiliate and exploit them. For Lipstadt, this was worse.

 

“A trial is not therapy,” Lipstadt’s British solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, known to TV’s “Sherlock” fans as Moriarty), tells her. Furious, she tries to make him understand that it is not their own catharsis the survivors seek. “You think they want to testify for themselves? It’s not for themselves. They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.” Unmoved, Julius replies, “It’s the price you pay for winning.”

 

The bulk of the film centers on the trial and all the testimony comes directly from the actual trial transcripts. “This was a film about truth and it had to be truthful,” Lipstadt said during the Q&A. Although some of the film’s detailed court procedures may be confusing (and boring to a non-attorney), the exchanges between Irving (Timothy Spall) and the defense’s Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) crackle, due in large part to the stellar acting of both.

 

Spall, who recently starred in “Mr. Turner”, has a rubber face perfectly suited to playing the duplicitous and self-impressed Irving. One minute, he is all smarmy self-justification, buttering up the judge and showboating for the spectators. The next, he is at his most infuriating, spewing diabolical anti-Semitic racist invectives and then playing the victim, accusing Lipstadt of tarnishing his reputation with a “verbal yellow star”.

 

The always-terrific Wilkinson brings weight and nuance to a cool-headed performance that hints at the roiling emotion lurking just below the surface. The film’s most satisfying moments are when his Rampton slyly lures Irving in during cross examination, then ferociously pounces, drawing and quartering his squirming prey.

 

Its most moving scene is during the legal team’s visit to Auschwitz. When Rampton steps on a barbed wire shard on his way to the gas chamber entrance, he suddenly understands the enormity of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. To imagine a barefooted Jew stepping on a piece of barbed wire on his way to his imminent murder is unspeakably unjust — and real.

 

Given the extraordinary pre-release press “Denial” has engendered, it can hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Lipstadt won her case. The Holocaust scholar, however, hopes the biggest takeaway of the film is not her victory, but a recognition that not all opinions merit defending.

 

“There are not two sides to every story. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. There are some things you cannot debate,” she said. “I will debate you on the facts. I will not debate liars.”

 

Noting that earlier in the day, the New York Time used “lie” to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said, Lipstadt is worried about what lies ahead. “We are living in a time when lying has become mainstream. The needle has moved so far,” she said. “There is an anti-intellectual, anti-factual attitude which is frightening.”

 

She paused for a moment and then directed the Q&A session towards the audience. “Where does that put us? As academics and people interested in social justice, what do we do?” she asked.

 

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“Ben-Hur” Remake Should Have Been Called “Ben-Huh?”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

During this summer of bloated spectacles, from the latest Jason Bourne franchise’s car chases to Marvel superheroes pitted against each other instead of a common enemy to the blood lust pageantry of the Republican National convention, the remake of “Ben Hur” fits right in. The CGI-burdened film is a superficial paean to excess, short attention spans, and sound bite pablum.

 

That said, it does have a spectacular and thunderous ten-minute chariot race made festive by 3-D glasses- enhanced special effects. You almost feel like a character inside a video game.

 

The plot, in a nutshell, centers on the rivalrous relationship between the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his best pal and Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). The two share an idyllic boyhood in a Jerusalem under benign Roman rule, riding horses and ignoring the civil unrest that will eventually pit brother against brother.

 

Messala loves Judah’s sister, but knows he is unworthy in station and finance. He does what any red-blooded man in his position and in quest of fame, fortune and globetrotting would do — he enlists in the Roman army.

 

Turns out Messala has quite a talent for battle and pillage, and when he returns to Jerusalem five years later, it is as a wealthy and powerful commander in a red cape and copper breastplate.

 

By then, Jerusalem and its Jews are clearly under Roman military control. Jewish zealots are waging a dangerous resistance, and a Jewish carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) proffers a world where one loves one’s enemies. Messala has returned not out of sentimental homesickness, but as a Roman officer charged with snuffing out this unrest.

 

Judah lives in a naïve rich boy’s bubble. This causes his undoing when a zealot he harbors (for humanitarian, not political or religious reasons) shoots an arrow at a Roman procession from the Hur roof. It misses Pontius Pilate, but the Roman reaction is swift and merciless. Inexplicably, Judah takes the blame and is sentenced to a slave’s slow death rowing in the belly of a Roman war ship.

 

The scenes shot during the ocean battles are the film’s most riveting. As man-powered ships ram each other to the steady beat of a war drum, we see only what the slaves can see through the small portholes in the ship’s side. From above deck, we are thrust into the turmoil of a losing naval battle. In this era of arm’s length drone warfare, it is a grim reminder of just what hell war is.

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Messala (Toby Kebbell) trying to keep the upper hand at the races.

Judah eventually escapes and washes up on a desert presided over by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wheeler-dealer who raises and races horses. After witnessing Judah’s equestrian gifts, Ilderim convinces Judah to return to Jerusalem and race his horses in the Circus chariot race against Messala. Of course, Judah’s horses are white and Messala’s are black. Of course, Judah wins.

 

It’s hard to know where to stop complaining about the cast, script and directing. Huston brings a doe-eyed, easy-going melancholy to a role that demands grit and primal presence. When he cuts his Jesus-like hair and shaves for the race, he looks more like the cover of GQ magazine than a fight-to-the-death warrior.

 

Kebbell is no more convincing as the malicious Messala. His un-nuanced, soft performance brings to mind Eliott Gould more than Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson. Santoro’s Jesus, by contrast, is the most three-dimensional and captivating of the three. Perhaps the casting should have been rearranged; perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference absent a complete script overhaul.

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Morgan Freeman as Ilderim.

The only breath of professionalism is the always magnificent Morgan Freeman, whose voice has that certain remarkable quality that inspired his casting as the voice of God (twice) and the narrator of countless films. Even wearing a grey dreadlocks wig that makes him look like the love child of the Lion King and Whoopie Goldberg, he injects his scenes with a grounded artistic integrity the rest of the film lacks. His cheeky delivery and rascally expressions is an oasis in a creative desert.

 

The remake of Ben-Hur is most interesting in its treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the blame for which is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Romans. It’s a shame that the whole episode is treated like a cinematic afterthought.

 

Perhaps the silver lining to this gratuitous remake is that it may send the Generation CGI-ers scurrying to their computers to stream the 1959 masterpiece that won eleven Oscars and catapulted Charlton Heston to godlike status. Who knows — it might even turn into a teachable moment that sometimes it really is best to leave well enough alone.

“Café Society” Could Be Better, Could Be Worse

Shelley A. Sackett

 

Like the West Bank settlements, 2016 presidential politics or the temperature of the main sanctuary during High Holiday services, Woody Allen is a lightning rod topic guaranteed to incite impassioned debate.

His 47th film, “Café Society”, was released less than a month ago and has been called everything from “a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie” to “the most beguiling in his ongoing late work.” It’s not his best, but he’s certainly made worse.

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Woody Allen directing Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart.

The film opens with a breathtaking shot of a romanticized version of 1930’s Hollywood, surprising coming from Allen, known more for his antipathy than amity towards Los Angeles. Sophisticated guests in formal evening wear mill about an impossibly blue pool where their host, the mega-agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) holds court. He is expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he announces loudly. Instead, he gets the family matriarch in the Bronx. His older sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) announces the imminent arrival of her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who is heading West to seek his fame and fortune. Phil should “set him up”.

Phil manages to avoid his nephew for three weeks, and then gives him “some cockamamie title” and a glorified errand-boy job. He also gives him his secretary, the Nebraska transplant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, whose luminous performance lends the film its only breath of fresh air), to show Bobby around his new hood. With her midriff-baring ensembles, ankle socks and little girl headbands, she is the quintessential Allen “it” girl/woman (think Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Mia Farrow and Scarlet Johansson).

Predictably, Bobby falls hard for her as they bond over Malibu beaches, grand old movie palaces and cheap, authentic Mexican food. Suddenly Bobby isn’t so homesick.

But just when he thinks he’s hit it big, it turns out he’s mined fool’s gold. (WARNING: Spoiler alert!) Vonnie has a much older, very married boyfriend who, in a plot twist all the more creepy in the context of Allen’s real life marriage to his quasi-adopted stepdaughter, is none other than Bobby’s Uncle Phil. Phil ups the ante and finally leaves his wife, asking Vonnie to marry him after Bobby confides he has just proposed to her. Vonnie chooses the Hollywood wife life, and Bobby heads back to New York broken-hearted.

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Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively and Jesse Eisenberg live it up in New York high style.

Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (a credible Corey Stoll) sets him up with a nightclub, and before long Bobby and his “Café Society” are thriving. His sophisticated clientele are the same swanky swells we met in the opening scene — they’ve just swapped their California sunglasses for sequins. It turns out Bobby was in his element in Hollywood after all; he was simply displaced on the wrong coast.

While Bobby and Vonnie get on with their lives (he marries another Veronica, Blake Lively, in an under-scripted part), they never get over each other, and their unrequited love is the theme of the last third of the movie. This would make for a gloomy half-hour were it not for some terrific one-liners and stand-out, effortless supporting performances, especially by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott, as Bobby’s squabbling parents Rose and Marty, and Sari Lennick, as his older sister Evelyn.

Unfortunately, Jesse Eisenberg is miscast as the Allen archetype of neurotic, articulate, self-absorbed and self-identifying New York Jew. There is a disconnect between the message and the messenger as Eisenberg giggles, hiccups and lurches his way through the film, his flat affect and bland hunch-shouldered physicality becoming distracting annoyances by the film’s end.

There are the usual cringe lines (Bobby’s response, “It’s part of our charm” to an unambiguous, “It’s true what they say. You people are pushy.”) and scenes (notably the gratuitous and unfunny prostitute encounter) we are braced to expect. But Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography is bewitching. He brings a pallet of sepias, golds and organic shadows to his first collaboration with Allen. His artistry and Stewart’s portrayal of Vonnie are reasons enough to see the film.

It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen is an 80-year-old man, but believe it we must as we listen to his brittle, fragile voiceover narration. Love him, hate him, tolerate him, whatever. There’s no denying the guy’s a cinematic wunderkind and our very own boychik to boot.

All’s Unfair in Love and War in “Indignation”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

Boston Jewish Film Festival did a real mitzvah on Sunday, July 17 when it treated local film lovers to a free sneak preview of Indignation, the film based on the 2008 Philip Roth novel that opens at the West Newton Cinema and local theaters on July 29. Even better, BJFF further indulged the sold out audience by bringing director and screenwriter James Schamus, (co-founder and former CEO of Focus Features) and his lead actor, Logan Lerman (Fury, Percy Jackson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), to the stage for a post-screening Q&A.

 

Semi-autobiographical, Roth’s dark story fictionalizes his own early-1950’s college experience at Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania. Schamus picked up the slim novel in an airport and fell in love with the book. “It is contemporary but shocking,” the producer and frequent Ang Lee collaborator said.

 

Set in 1951 against the backdrop of the Korean War, Indignation introduces us to Marcus Messner (played by 24-year-old Logan Lerman). He is the straight-A, straight-laced only son of Max, an overbearing Newark kosher butcher, and Esther, his practical, well-meaning wife (played by theatre veterans Danny Burstein and Linda Emond). Marcus is also the film’s narrator, and his voiceover story has a single simple message: the choices we make determine our fate.

 

When Marcus’ buddies start coming home from Korea in body bags, Max’s spiraling anxieties fuel his transition from paternal protector to paranoid oppressor. “The tiniest mistakes can have consequences,” he relentlessly warns his son, worried he will squander his future in a pool hall or behind the wrong closed door.

 

As much to escape his suffocating parents as to avoid the draft, Marcus accepts a scholarship (awarded by his synagogue) to the fictional, elite and very WASP-y Winesburg College in bucolic Ohio. Instantly, the cinematographer Christopher Blauvett’s pallet changes from the overcast skies and gloomy browns and greys of working-class Newark to the sunshine and lush lawns of the collegiate mid-West.

 

Marcus’ emotional pallet, however, retains its muddy hues. A defiant loner by choice, he avoids getting too close to his two roommates and chafes at any action he interprets as controlling. He resents mandatory chapel attendance not because he is Jewish, but because he is an atheist. He is an equal opportunity religious objector, a rebel for whom the whole world is his cause.

 

He joylessly slogs through his days, excelling at his studies and working in the library. Then one day, the dreamy creamy Olivia (Sarah Gadon) awakens his slumbering id. Simultaneously calculated and insouciant, she casts her line in Marcus’ sight line and reels him in with the lure of her twitching foot. Schamus’ light directorial touch subtly alerts us to impending danger and ultimate doom. She is Eve, and Marcus is ravenous for whatever she is serving up.

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Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and her alluring twitching foot.

 

During their first date at the only French restaurant in town, the two seem an easy intellectual match, but there’s an unsettling emotional power imbalance at play. He’s as naïve and unscathed as she is cynical and damaged. Even later, during and after the unsolicited sexual favor she performs on him in the front seat of his roommate’s borrowed car, there’s a steely premeditation to Olivia that puts Marcus (and the audience) on edge. This is the least intimate intimate act imaginable, and that disconnect bodes ill for our protagonist.

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Marcus (Logan Lerman) and Olivia (Sarah Gadon) on their first date.

Marcus may be sitting in the driver’s seat, but Olivia’s clearly behind the wheel. With that single shocking act, she has changed his life forever, and she knows it.

Their initial infatuation becomes hopelessly complicated, careening from snub to obsession to mutual self destruction. This unravels the stoic Marcus to the point where he draws the attention of Dean Hawes Caudwell (played by the terrific Tracy Letts, lately of “Homeland” fame), who summons him to his office for a little chat. In an 18-minute scene that is the unequivocal showpiece of the film, Marcus sheds his melancholic reserve and demonstrates his High School debate captain chops as he rips into the Dean’s defense of all things Winesburg, including mandatory chapel.

 

Admiring the precocious Marcus’ considerable oratory skills while clearly loathing his message, the Dean treats him as an intellectual equal, and the two go at it tooth and nail. There is no deference to status or age; this is intellectual trench warfare, and each is prepared to fall on the blade of his razor sharp wit.

 

“I knew the film would live or die on that scene,” Schamus said during the Q&A, and he’s right. It’s the most riveting and emotional scene of the entire movie. It’s a shame Marcus doesn’t show half the passion and urgency with Olivia that he does while lacerating the Dean. The two lovers just don’t share the same on-screen chemistry.

 

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Director and screenwriter James Schamus

Eventually things go from not great to worse, and Esther shows up at Winesburg when Marcus lands in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. She meets Olivia, immediately spots the suicide scars on her wrist, and quickly evaluates the danger her son is in. The scene where she exacts Marcus’s promise never to see Olivia again in exchange for her remaining married to his increasingly abusive father is both devastating and tender.

 

In his directorial debut, Schamus has made a classy, painterly film. As Marcus, Lerman gives a focused performance of subtlety and depth. Although Marcus is clearly Jewish, he is more engaging and accessible than the neurotic clichéd stereotypes popularized by Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Allen. Each time he bristles at some real or imagined oppressive authority figure, his indignation brings home the film’s point.

 

Gadon’s Olivia is impossible to look away from. She is as complicated as she is stunning, equal parts Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelley and Rebecca Pigeon. Letts, however, is nothing short of brilliant as Dean Caudwell, the roguish academic autocrat whose concern for Marcus is both intrusive and sincere.

 

Schamus has made a good, entertaining movie, especially considering it is the industry’s “Summer Season”. But for Jay Wadley’s trite and overbearing score, and the fact that we really don’t care enough about Olivia and Marcus because they don’t seem to care enough about each other, it could have been a very good one indeed.

 

 

 

 

“The Farewell Party” Poses More Questions Than Answers

“The Farewell Party” poses questions more usually associated with the High Holidays and long hours of contemplation in the sanctuary: Who shall live? Who shall die? Who by destiny? Who by free will? Although touted as an Israeli comedy about euthanasia, the film raises important political, ethical and religious points about assisted suicide and the fine line between aiding a suffering friend and playing God.

The film is set in Jerusalem in a retirement home where everyone knows each other’s business. Although the residents have individual apartments with doors that close, the atmosphere is more like a kibbutz.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) and his waifish wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein) are a devoted couple with a small circle of equally devoted friends. Their terminally ill best pal, Max, who doctors are keeping alive against his will, is suffering terribly from the prolonged constant pain. When his wife Yana begs Yehezkel to help in any way he can, he agrees.

The machinist teams up with retired vet Dr. Daniel to design a machine that will assist the angel of death with the push of a button. Dr. Daniel’s married lover Raffi (whom we meet for the first time literally in the closet and naked), a retired cop, suggests the mercy killers pre-tape a video of Max stating that he is ending his life of his own free will and that he alone is responsible for his decision and his action.

The posse gathers to inaugurate Yehezkel’s machine in a loving bedside farewell that restores dignity and a smile to Max’s pain-wracked face. They swear each other to secrecy but since their lives at the communal retirement home are open books where the lines between the private and public blur, word soon gets out that there is an alternative to death with indignity.

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The friends of “The Farewell Party” gather to hear the pleas of a fellow septuagenarian whose wife wants to end her life. 

Levana, the only one of the group who morally opposes euthanasia, is ironically the only one in its needs when she starts her slow disappearance into the abyss of dementia. Yehezkel’s reaction to his wife’s request spotlights the dilemmas and ambiguities of assisted suicide, and we see in his face he wishes, too late, that he had never decided to tinker with matters of life and death.

The film is surprisingly light and graceful and the cast interesting and believable. The writer-director team Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon balance tenderness and daring as they tackle the contemporary issue of how to deal with elderly patients who may not want the all the wonders medicine makes available to them. They take their serious subject seriously, but ably interweave humor and heartbreaking caring. Although “The Farewell Party” is a film about death, it is also a film about the sanctity of life.

When that life becomes subjectively unendurable, and the treatment objectively values quantity of days lived over their quality, the doctor’s drive to keep the patient alive at all costs becomes as cruel and impersonal as the disease itself.

However, whether a tinkerer and a retired vet have the right to build a “mercy-killing machine” and use it with impunity is not necessarily the best alternative. Or is it?

Check local theater listings for times and locations.

On Film, Faith and Family

Zach Braff should be as exhausted as he looks. On his day off from his eightshow- a-week lead role in “Bullets Over Broadway,” Woody Allen’s musical comedy that opened in April, he is not relaxing and renewing. Instead, he was in Boston on a publicity blitz of interviews and appearances in support of his favorite thing in life: his filmmaking.

“Wish I Was Here,” which opens in Boston on July 18, is his second time both behind and in front of the camera. It has been 10 years since his indie film, “Garden State,” which he also directed, wrote and starred in, blazed its way from the Sundance Film Festival to cult favorite, picking up a Grammy for best soundtrack along the way. Braff is passionate about this project, his newest film, which he funded through a Kickstarter campaign. He deflected the criticism he attracted from those who felt that celebrities should bankroll their own projects. “You can’t make a movie these days about Jews,” he stated. “We’re 2% of the population and shrinking, and none of the studios want to make a movie for or about us. Part of the crowd-funding was to be able to tell an honest story about a Jewish family.”

In this new film, which he co-wrote with his older brother Adam, Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a 30-something secular Jew whose kids attend Yeshiva (paid for by their observant

grandfather, Gabe (played by the always captivating Mandy Patinkin), and whose wife works a job she hates to support his “career” of auditioning for acting jobs he never gets. When Gabe is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Adam is forced to transition from child to parent, from cared for to caregiver. Along the way, he taps into his own spirituality and reconciles with his father and his faith.

The plot, however, is secondary to Braff’s real purpose in making the film.

“This film is about people who are searching for their spirituality and haven’t found it yet,” Braff stated. “I identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism. I grew up with stories of the Holocaust. I relate to the stories of Jews being persecuted and forever being killed and chased from wherever they lived. You can’t help thinking, ‘Wow, I am descended from these people that nobody wanted to be on this earth.’ I want to protect that.”

The three Braff brothers (older brother Joshua is also a writer) were raised in New Jersey in a strictly Orthodox home. Although Zach and Adam scripted the film, Joshua collaborated on developing Aidan’s character.

“My brother and I wanted to write about our faith and we wanted to write about growing up Jewish. Because we’re 10 years apart, our father raised us differently. Adam went to an Orthodox, very strict yeshiva and it pushed him away from Judaism. It had the opposite effect my father had hoped for,” Braff explained.

“By the time I was going to school, we were conservative and kosher, but I was going to secular school and Hebrew school three times a week instead of yeshiva,” he continued. “We knew we could approach the subject of a secular man’s search for spirituality because we were raised from two different stances.”

“We were a great yin and yang for each other,” he shared.

Braff’s father, who welcomes Shabbat every Friday with prayers and dinner, was concerned that his sons might be taking digs at organized religion in general, and Judaism in particular. “I made it clear to him that this movie isn’t about condemning Orthodoxy at all,” Braff said.

Rather, it is about the yearnings of a young man to tap into something which he knows is there but which he has yet to experience.

Two characters in the film, an old man and a young rabbi, illustrate Braff’s point. “The old rabbi isn’t surviving well in a modern world, let alone trying to enroll a secular man in faith. Then there is the opposite with the young rabbi, who goes out of his way to tap into the spirituality that Aidan has. He untangles him from needing the exact right words of Judaism and instead focuses in on exactly where he is.”

He smiles broadly. “This was the dream rabbi my brother and I always hoped for, but never met, and so we created him. My father cries his eyes out every time he sees it.”

For his soundtrack, Braff again enlisted bands he loved to create original content for the film (“Garden State” launched The Shins from the indie to mainstream realms). The playlist includes songs by Bon Iver, Cat Power, Coldplay and The Shins.

A Trivial Pursuit tidbit about Braff is that he is related to Mitt Romney, whom he met when flying to Utah last fall. When asked if his mother is really Romney’s ninth cousin, he laughed. “It’s a very bizarre fact, but it’s true. The research was done by a genealogist who clearly has too much time on his hands.”

He paused and then leaned forward, blue eyes thoughtful and somber. “I fought hard to keep this a Jewish movie with a Jewish star and I hope the Jews of Boston and Massachusetts will go see it. I’d like to make more films about my Jewish experience.”

Truth and Consequences

Another side of the Supreme Court’s Clarence Thomas

Pictured: Anita Hill at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 1991.

On October 9, 1991, during televised proceedings, an arresting young woman in an eye-catching aqua linen dress testified to the character of her male supervisor, stating that he had repeatedly made graphic sexual comments and unwarranted sexual overtures towards her while she was employed by the U.S. Department of EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

The woman was Anita Hill, the first African American professor tenured by the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The man was Clarence Thomas, African American nominee to replace retiring Thurgood Marshall on the U. S. Supreme Court. The proceedings were Thomas’ confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of 14 white men. Those few days changed the course of Anita’s life and planted the seeds that revolutionized an entire body law.

The author with Anita Hill at the opening of “Anita” at Kendall Landmark Cinema.

Academy-Award winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock’s splendid new documentary film, “Anita: Speaking Truth To Power,” tells this story with archival footage, contemporary interviews, and scrapbook-like glimpses of Anita’s family stories. The result is as good as documentaries get: the audience learns, feels and questions.

Mock opens her film on October 9, 2010, with Ginni Thomas’ voice message to Ms. Hill, asking her to consider apologizing for what she did to her husband when she testified at his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings

“I am reaching across the airwaves,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I pray about this.”

“That phone call is symbolic of the story,” Mock pointed out in a conversation with the Journal. “It represented how relevant and resonant and raw the issue of the hearing is almost 20 years later. It is still on people’s minds, and it still evokes an immediate response.”

“Anita” lays out the historical chronology of the events clearly, yet with enough nuance and depth to engage both cinemaphile and attorney. Lili Haydn’s score accomplishes her goal to “tickle the heart as the words tickle the brain.”

The youngest of 13 children, Ms. Hill grew up in a rural Oklahoma farming family, exhibiting the dignity, poise and intelligence she displayed at the hearings from an early age. She graduated from Yale Law School and worked in Washington D.C. as special counsel to Clarence Thomas. Because of that work connection, the FBI contacted her for a routine character background check on Thomas when Republican President Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court. Ms. Hill filled out the questionnaire and sent it to the Senate, assuming it would be confidential. Somehow, it was leaked to the press, and Ms. Hill found herself a reluctant witness at the confirmation hearings.

From that moment on, her life would never be the same.

The hearings were an excruciating example of democracy run amok with senator after senator grilling Ms. Hill with questions and comments meant to humiliate, embarrass and confront.

“Are you a scorned woman?” drawled Senator Heflin of Alabama. “Do you have a martyr complex?” Never had there been such an attack on a witness with nothing to gain.

“People didn’t understand,” Ms. Hill said. “They thought I was on trial. The issue became my character instead of the character of the nominee.”

Thomas denied Ms. Hill’s allegations, dismissing them as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” The Senate confirmed him 52 to 48 and he sits on the Supreme Court today, where his conservative vote is often the fifth in the Court’s frequent 5-4 decisions, including Bush v. Gore.

For Ms. Hill, the hearings’ immediate aftermath was not as rosy. “The hearings changed my life,” she reflected, “the way I see the world.” She received death threats; the press hounded her. The conservative republican state legislators tried to close the law school when they realized Ms. Hill’s tenure prevented them from firing her.

Yet, her testimony also unleashed a national discussion and awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Congress passed tougher laws with more protections and remedies for victims. Since 1991, the numbers of sexual harassment claims and women elected to public office has surged.

“Despite the high cost, it was worth having the truth come out,” Ms. Hill acknowledged. “People misunderstand that harassment is about the sex. It’s really about the control and the power.”

After years spent deliberately out of the spotlight, the deeply private Ms. Hill decided that the time had come to tell her story. A friend recommended she watch Freida Mock’s documentary about Tony Kushner, and Ms. Hill connected with Mock’s style. Three years in the making, “Anita” debuted to sold-out crowds at the renowned Sundance Film Festival.

“I wanted people to understand who Anita is and why she did what she did. In the sensationalism of the hearings, I felt the story of Anita Hill was lost,” Mock said.

“Anita” is a brilliant, engaging, enraging but ultimately uplifting film. Ms. Hill’s bravery, generosity and intelligence pierce the dark murky residue left by those 14 senators some 20 years ago. Her legacy empowers a new generation facing the same old issues of gender and workplace inequalities.

“If I am not public, then there will be a sense of victory that they will have over me,” Hill said. “I try to live each day with a heart full of grace.”