Cameras have followed Judge Kerry Birmingham from Poland to Paris to Tel Aviv, and all he did in each one of them was play Scrabble and read comic books.
"It seems there are no more Jews in Israel, only Israelis!"
The mass extermination of Jews and other "undesirables" during World War II is commonly referred to, of course, as "The Holocaust," with a capital H, and with good reason. Has there been a modern tragedy felt more widely, more distinctly, than the unthinkable genocide perpetrated in Europe upon people who are or could have been our parents and grandparents? It's fertile emotional soil, one with far more resonance than any other act of murder in the twentieth century. This property, this quality of being a conduit to universal feelings of disgust and shame and a whole other gamut of emotions, has made it one of the great historical touchstones of modern storytelling. With a ready-made audience connection and the weight of historical verisimilitude behind it, it's no wonder that it remains a topic filmmakers return to again and again.
Director Emmanuel Finkiel puts his own stamp on the Holocaust narrative with Voyages. The story, such as it is, follows three survivors in the modern world still struggling with the fallout of the Holocaust. The three interconnected tales follow Rivka (Shulamit Adar) as she tours Poland's concentration camps on a bus with her husband, who is flummoxed at her instability and quiet agony; Regine (Liliane Rovère), a Parisian widow startled to learn that her father, long thought dead in the camps, is alive; and Vera (Esther Gorintin), who follows her neighbors from Moscow to Tel Aviv in an attempt to track down a lost cousin in a very foreign land.
Despite the inherent emotional currency of the subject matter, there are no moments of high drama or the expected Spielbergian moments of spirit-lifting triumph. Voyages is not about drama, but fallout; the characters, battered and bruised despite years and lives away from the war, still suffer. Finkiel cut his teeth as an acolyte of Krzysztof Kieslowski (he was Kieslowski's assistant on Three Colors), and his influence is present here in Finkiel's elliptical narrative. Which is to say: not a whole lot actually happens. When a bus breaking down counts as a moment of high action, it's clear that this is not a movie where Liam Neeson will be taken away to stand trial for war crimes to the strains of John Williams. This is as spare and unadorned a Holocaust drama as you're likely to find.
Finkiel admirably forgoes all flash in favor of economical storytelling. His script, featuring minimal dialogue and playing small moments for long single takes, is played for its menial, sometimes excruciating minutiae, with only occasional glimpses—a numbered tattoo flashed on an arm, an offhand reference to Auschwitz—to remind the viewer of the inciting incident behind these peoples' lives. The Holocaust is omnipresent, but not always visible. The effect is that the aftermath, not the pure horror of the Holocaust itself, is the focus, exposing the characters in all their various damaged, alienated, and not entirely quantifiable states. Any viewer investment will hinge on an interest in the journeys of the three female leads; dependence on plot or even momentum will be unrewarding. Consequently, much of the movie is really pretty dull. The disparate plot lines are only connected in the film's final minutes, and its appropriateness to the tone and characters of the film doesn't lessen the moment's lack of drama. Finkiel should be commended for cutting through the melodrama that seems to spring naturally from Holocaust narratives (understandable, certainly), but the resulting film will likely put off those interested in the subject matter and those unwilling to abide its glacial pace. Viewed as a character drama, however, it rewards viewing with an eye toward articulating the unspoken anguish and frustration of its three linked, very different heroines. There's a lot of complexity here for so simple a story.
Picture quality is decent, with some noticeable scratches and at least one glaring instance of shimmer. Sound is solid and expectedly unremarkable. It's a minor quibble, but the package also misstates the film's running time (115 minutes; in reality 111).
The only extra of substance is "Esther's Voyage," an overlong making-of featurette that follows elderly actress Gorintin, apparently not an actor by trade, during her days shooting on location in Tel Aviv. Like the film itself, it is occasionally touching and sometimes boring, though Gorintin comes off as a likable, slightly befuddled old lady who's nonetheless game for this movie nonsense. The usual selection of trailers rounds out the DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• "Esther's Voyage" Featurette
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