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Jewish-interest films wow critics at Cannes Film Festival

TJI Wrap
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Published: 26 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

An unusual Holocaust story is “a blood-freezing treatise on the banality of evil”; film about Jewish boy kidnapped by papal authorities ‘‘looks like a classic”

Films of Jewish interest have made an impact at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

Winner of the Grand Prix , festival's second prize, was The Zone of Interest, which explores the family life of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss, who lived a comfortable, middle-class life inside the concentration camp.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis – who died the day after the film premiered.

The BBC’s Nicholas Barber described the film, by director Jonathan Glazer, as “a blood-freezing treatise on the banality of evil".

The film opens with Höss’s wife Hedwig showing her mother around her “paradise garden” inside Auschwitz. “The women's quiet, middle-class chit-chat could hardly be more ordinary, but it's rendered dizzyingly surreal and deeply horrific by certain details that they don't seem to notice: the grey, barbed wire-topped wall on one side of the garden; the barracks and the belching chimney just beyond it; and the constant background noise of industrial rumbling, steam trains chuffing, some intermittent shouting, and the occasional echoing gunshot.

“Slowly and steadily, without any big, sudden reveal, we learn Rudolf  Höss, his wife, and their young children have a contented, healthy, if slightly boring life while thousands of people are killed daily just a few feet away.”

 Barber gave The Zone of Interest five stars. Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw ranked it four stars, noting, “It really has the scalp-prickling quality of a bad dream or a fairytale.”

Bradshaw gave five stars to another film of Jewish interest at Cannes: Kidnapped, by 83-year-old Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio.

Kidnapped is based on the true story of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish child in Bologna who, in 1858, when he was six, was taken away from his family by papal authorities. This was done because Edgardo’s doting Catholic nursemaid had claimed that when Edgardo was a baby, and apparently in dire sickness, she had presumed to carry out an emergency baptism, because she feared Edgardo would die and go to limbo.

The authorities affected to believe that the Jewish family would therefore “sacrifice” the now-Catholic child, and jumped at the chance to punish the Jewish community and inflate their own missionary self-importance. Edgardo, extensively brainwashed, grew up to be a priest and vehement partisan of the church.

“I thrilled to this movie: the moment when the pope playfully hides Edgardo in his cloak while he plays hide-and-seek is an extraordinary parallel to when he first hid in his mother’s skirts. My heart was in my mouth when Edgardo is carried off by the brutal authorities. And at the end, when the older, agonised Edgardo comes to see his mother on her deathbed, Bellocchio creates a denouement that made me gasp. This already looks like a classic,” Bradshaw wrote.

Variety was less enthusiastic, describing the film as “solid, stately and — like the collapsing Papal States of the Italian Peninsula in the late 1800s — just a little too tradition-bound for its own good. 

Also premiering at Cannes was Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, an almost four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during World War II and the persecution of the city’s Jewish citizens during the period.The narrated film by the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave British filmmaker and his partner — Dutch documentarian, author and screenwriter Bianca Stigter — is based on Stigter’s illustrated book Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945).  The project, McQueen’s first documentary feature, includes no archival footage and instead intertwine moments from past and present-day Amsterdam in other ways.


The Zone of Interest review from Cannes: Five stars for Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust 'masterpiece' (BBC)

The Zone of Interest review – Jonathan Glazer adapts Martin Amis’s chilling Holocaust drama (Guardian)

Kidnapped review – Marco Bellocchio’s antisemitism drama is a classic in the making (Guardian)

Steve McQueen’s 4-Hour Documentary on Nazi-Occupied Amsterdam Screens at Cannes Film Festival

Photo: A bucolic scene from The Zone of Interest

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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