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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Ivan': East European Jews in the 1930s

October 13, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

It is a time of madness, with every aspect of society, from the personal to the political, veering toward collapse. Mystics, racists, pragmatists, idealists and young people in love collide on the 1930s streets of the nameless town on the eastern Polish frontier that is the setting for an impressive new work called "Ivan and Abraham."

The first fiction film by French documentarian Yolande Zauberman, "Ivan and Abraham" is ambitious in all its aspects. An attempt to re-create the lost world of Eastern European Jewry between the two World Wars, it is a well-crafted document that captures the chaotic spirit of the times with a Brueghl-like texture and density.

Sensitively photographed (by Jean-Marc Fabre) in wide-screen black and white, "Ivan" is more than anything a visual pleasure. Shot in small villages in Belarus and the Ukraine, it uncannily brings to life the crowded courtyards, the winding paths and byways, the cluttered study houses that characterized life in the long-gone shtetls of Poland.

Writer-director Zauberman, whose parents were Polish Jews who survived the war, has also laced the visuals with a moodiness that emphasizes the melancholy that cut across all aspects of society, as the apocalypse that no one could name but everyone felt hovered just out of reach.

"Ivan and Abraham" tells its story through a single family. The grandfather, the pious but rigid Nachman (Roland Bykov), has trouble managing the estates of the area's dissipated prince (Oleg Iankovski), but worrying him just as much are two problem grandchildren.

Rachel (Maria Lipkina) is a marriageable teen-ager, but she is terribly in love with a man her family considers unsuitable, the renegade Communist Aaron (Vladimir Machkov), who is on the run from the authorities but returns to the town because Rachel is on his mind.

Rachel's 9-year-old brother Abraham (Roma Alexandrovitch) is just as much of a trial to Nachman. Too wild to be considered an acceptable Jewish child, he would rather ride horses than pray and spends most of his time with his best friend, the older, non-Jewish Ivan (Sacha Iakovlev), who has been apprenticed to Abraham's family.

Overlaying all of this is the wariness with which Jews and non-Jews regard each other. The local peasantry both hate the Jews and are frightened of them, their superstitiousness making them ready to scapegoat any outsiders. So when the reckless prince loses everything to gambling debts, he sets a whirlwind into motion that soon sweeps up Aaron and Rachel, Abraham and Ivan.

Concerned with verisimilitude, writer-director Zauberman went to some lengths to make everything feel right. Since most of the film's dialogue is in Yiddish, she had her non-Jewish cast learn the language from scratch, and, helped by a tutor who was a student of the great Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, they do a surprisingly good job speaking it, as well as the Russian, Polish and Gypsy languages that add to the babble of tongues.

In her eagerness, Zauberman does allow some of the film's dramatic scenes to drift into awkwardness, and the overall pacing is not unexpectedly slow. But standing in strong compensation is the way "Ivan and Abraham" conveys a sense of silent witness to this seething world, half-medieval, half-modern, that was soon to be no more.

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes brief scenes of partial nudity.

'Ivan and Abraham'

Abraham: Roma Alexandrovitch

Ivan: Sacha Iakovlev

Aaron: Vladimir Machkov

Rachel: Maria Lipkina

Nachman: Rolan Bykov

Stepan: Daniel Olbrychski

Released by New Yorker Films. Director Yolande Zauberman. Producers Rene Cleitman, Jean-Luc Ormieres. Executive producer Bernard Bouix. Screenplay Yolande Zauberman. Cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre. Editor Yann Dedet. Costumes Marina Kaishauri. Music Ghedalia Tazartes. Set design Alexandre Sagoskin. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

* In limited release through Wednesday at Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.

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