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SCREENING ROOM

Two Moving Documentaries Help Conclude Cinema Judaica

November 11, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Screening tonight at the Music Hall in the outstanding Cinema Judaica '96 series, which concludes Thursday, are two more illuminating, engrossing and very moving documentaries.

Elizabeth Rodgers and Robby Henson's "Exodus 1947" (at 7 p.m.) is the very model of a meticulous yet exciting step-by-step account of a major historical event. It is also a tribute to a group of some 40 American Jewish men, now in their 70s, who almost half a century ago lent an essential hand to the formation of the state of Israel.

They were volunteers who signed up in secrecy to serve as crew members on Exodus 1947, the once-elegant luxury liner that transported 4,500 Jewish refugees to Palestine in a bold attempt to break the blockade by the British. "Exodus 1947" recalls the terrible plight of some 200,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust only to face severe restrictions in returning to their ancestral homeland.

This splendid, carefully researched and assembled documentary is chock-full of fascinating details as it recalls a courageous, complex and dangerous mission with immense consequences. Rodgers and Ruth Gruber and Eli Kalm, who appeared in the film, will answer questions following the screening.

Gregori Viens' "Island of Roses: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles" (at 8:30 p.m.) recounts ancient Sephardic traditions in general and how our local community of "Rhodeslis" in particular is trying to preserve them in the face of assimilation. Few Rhodesli descendants can speak Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect, expected to die out as a spoken language within 20 years.

Until the Germans sent Rhodes' Jews to Auschwitz in 1944, these Sephardim were able to practice ancient traditions undisturbed from the time they were expelled in 1492 from Spain, where they had lived since some 800 years BC. Today, firsthand experience with Rhodesli customs, beliefs and rituals resides mainly with a handful of elderly women, some of whom are Holocaust survivors and others long part of the local Sephardic community.

Viens' film leaves you thinking about the quality of your own spiritual life and sense of identity.

Information: (310) 274-6869.

Two by Zola: LACMA's "French Society on Film" continues Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Bing Theater with two Emile Zola adaptations, Albert Capellani's "Germinal" (1913) and Jean Renoir's "La Be^te Humaine" (The Human Beast) (1938).

The year after Capellani, an exponent of naturalist style in the theater, made a remarkable "Les Miserables" he made the equally remarkable "Germinal," both astonishing accomplishments since the feature-length film was in its infancy. Burly, forceful Henry Krauss, who had played Jean Valjean, is "Germinal's" labor-organizing Etienne Lantier.

While it is true that his film may not have all the nuances of Claude Berri's superb 1993 "Germinal," it is also true to the spirit of Zola's concern for the oppressed, in this case a group of miners who make an ill-fated strike in the face of a pay cut. Visually, this "Germinal," which will be presented with musical accompaniment by Robert Israel, is awesome in its documentary-like, beautifully modulated black-and-white images of an actual mining community. LACMA's freshly struck print is one of the finest of any silent film extant.

Renoir's film stars Jean Gabin and explores the dark side of human nature with the director's usual subtlety and compassion. It's hard to imagine that "La Be^te Humaine," based on one of Zola's 20 Rougon-Macquart novels, could have had more impact when it was made than it does right now.

Gabin plays a railroad engineer determined to escape his family's sordid alcoholic past but who is plagued with dangerous black rages whenever he tries to transfer his love for his locomotive, whom he calls Lison, to an actual woman.

In this tale of doom, a twist of fate hopelessly entangles him with the Le Havre station-master's chic, sexy young wife (Simone Simon), a femme fatale if ever there was one. There's a sense of inevitable disaster to this couple, so profoundly attracted to each other, that brings to mind the similarly lethal pairing in "The Honeymoon Killers."

The sublime "Children of Paradise" (1945), an all-time great film directed by Marcel Carne, who died Oct. 31 at 90, screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Information: (213) 857-6010.

The Grande 4-Plex's American Independents series continues Friday with Edward Barkin's "Rift," a relentlessly tedious and pretentious account of a young man (William Sage) who thinks he's becoming unhinged as he falls in love with the wife (Jennifer Bransford) of his best friend (Timothy Cavanaugh) as their marriage deteriorates.

Information: (213) 617-0268.

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