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Jewish Film Festival scales back on the scope, but not on the quality

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Mahler on the Couch’, one of the offerings at this year’s Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival.

After a somewhat ambitious expansion last year, the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival scaled back a little for its 11th edition, with a smaller number of films and a narrower range of venues. Organizer Joshua Abbey still put together a solid selection of movies, though, balancing artistic ambition with audience accessibility, and the screenings were almost universally well-attended, including one sellout among the movies I went to.

As usual, there were films focused on the Holocaust and Israel’s struggle to define itself, the two perennial top subjects for Jewish cinema, but Abbey also takes a broad view of the Jewish experience in movies. That meant that films like the biopic Mahler on the Couch, about Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s turbulent private life and therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud, and the documentary Love Etc., featuring five different stories of love and romance in New York City, drew some grumbles from audience members who thought they weren’t Jewish enough.

The problem with those movies was mainly that they weren’t interesting enough, and the best films in the festival were the ones that approached the old subjects in thoughtful, if gloomy, ways: The Polish Holocaust drama Joanna, focused on two characters facing impossible choices, made grand historical events personal, while the Israeli coming-of-age drama Intimate Grammar used the turbulence of adolescence as a metaphor for the turbulence of a nation. In a festival that can sometimes seem like it’s covering too much familiar ground, they were reminders that any subject can be moving if presented with intelligence and creativity.

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