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Jerry Cutler On Film—Grim ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ Is Well Acted, ‘Women’s Balcony’ Is Subtle Comedy

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2017 – 12:52 PM

Zoo Keepers Wife–A Wonderfully Acted Look At Grim 1939 Warsaw 

Adorable animals and vicious beasts come face to face in a Polish zoo–but, the meeting is terribly one-sided as the beasts carry guns and grenades and tanks and hearts filled with unwarranted venom. 

The Zoo Keepers Wife is a true story based on Diane Ackerman’s best selling non-fiction book. The wife, Antonina (brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Chastain), makes her daily walk to town through the zoo which is cared for by her husband Jan (a wonderful Johan Heldenbergh). She happily greets the animals by name and trusts them implicitly because, as she says: “You look into their eyes, and know exactly what’s in their hearts.”

 The year and place is 1939 Warsaw and goose-stepping Nazis have invaded Poland. Suddenly, the life of Antonina and Jan and those of the Polish people, are turned into a war zone with the Germans destroying the zoo and rounding up as many Jews as possible herding them into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto en-route to carry out Hitler’s final solution.

Jan is allowed to drive his truck into the ghetto to collect garbage to bring it back to the zoo which has now become a pig farm to feed the invaders. Jan leaves with the garbage that is now covering Jewish people in the back of his truck. Antonina and Jan hide them in empty animal cages in their now deserted zoo, and in rooms in their home.

Antonina devises a signal, a special tune on her piano, alerting their guests to return to their hiding places whenever the Germans approach. Jan fears the Nazis will soon discover their scheme and kill not only the Jews but them as well. Antonia’s passion convinces Jan to continue.

Jan goes to the railroad station and, in a scene I found hard to look at, he hesitantly lifts up little children as each raise their arms to be lifted into a cattle car happy to be leaving the smell and dehumanization of the ghetto.

In all, approximately 300 Jews were saved by Antonina and Jan; and for their heroism were awarded by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

It is a difficult film to watch although Director Niki Caro skirts the real horrors of the Holocaust. The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautifully photographed and acted and must be seen by every person with a love and compassion for life.

3 1/2 bagels out of 4

The Women’s Balcony­–A Subtle Comedy About Orthodox Women In Jerusalem

The Women’s Balcony currently at the Laemmle and still attracting crowds in and around Beverly Hills, is a subtle comedy about Orthodox women who dare band together and defy an ultra Orthodox rabbi.

Written by Shlomit Nechama and distributed by Menemsha Films,  the film tells the tale of a small traditional synagogue in Jerusalem whose balcony, reserved for women only, collapses injuring the elderly rabbi’s wife. Overwhelmed by his wife’s serious condition, the rabbi falls into a deep depression. Unable to speak to him about the reparation of the balcony, the members of the congregation tell their story to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who promises to come to their aid.

The construction begins in accordance to the rabbi’s design. When it is complete, the women realize that the space left for them to pray is as big as a clothes closet and certainly unfit for prayer. The rabbi, following the strict dictate that the sight of women during men’s prayer takes away the relevancy of prayers from the conscientiously faithful, should not be seen. Hence, a room in a small space would be proper.

But, God bless today’s Orthodox women, who are slowly and some with defiance, speaking out. They have yet to demand mixed seating, but for now are happy with being in the same synagogue in keeping with Orthodox law. The first step is to speak up for a large and comfortable balcony and accept the age-old dictum of separate seating. They band together and fight for the right to have a spacious balcony and become an integral part of Jewish prayer.

The men are puzzled and yet impressed with their fierce determination. “Hell,” said one philosopher, “hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Much to the disdain of the ultra-Orthodox rabbi, he is badgered and cajoled.

The Women’s Balcony is not only for the Orthodox or even for the Jewish community. It’s universal message is in accord with today’s modern women who demand to be heard – and it’s funny.

3 bagels and a shmear of Kosher cream cheese

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