Latino film fest has heavy Jewish accent

It remains something of a secret, but for the last several years the International Latino Film Festival has devoted a chunk of its far-reaching lineup to movies with overtly Jewish themes.

This year’s schedule features a diverse trio of films, from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, that explore the Jewish experience in an often-overlooked region of the diaspora. The revelation is that these films, which deal with the usual suspects of identity, family and the Old Country, will seem more familiar than foreign to American Jewish moviegoers.

The 11th International Latino Film Festival runs Nov. 2-18 around the Bay Area.

In “Cara de Queso — Mi Primer Gueto” (“Cheese Head—My First Ghetto”), veteran Argentine director Ariel Winograd revisits a summer in his adolescence with an unusual mix of bemusement and revulsion. (We know the story is semi-autobiographical because the main character is named Ariel.) While American Jews send their children off to camp in the summer, their Argentine cousins apparently shlep the entire family to an all-Jewish country club, or gated community.

Although everyone is cordial on the surface, a well-defined social hierarchy gives status and power to the richer folks. And among the children, naturally, are bullies and victims.

“Cheese Head” plays like a typical coming-of-age story on one level, with its young characters’ obsession with sex, confusion about the adult world and unexpected moral dilemmas. In other words, the movie generates a good deal of humor from crude lines and situations.

But if one looks beneath the surface comedy, a world of seething frustration and resentment is plainly visible. This is not a portrait of a tight-knit community so much as a prologue to widespread rebellion. One look at Ariel’s father, disgusted with his kvetching wife and an irrelevant irritation to his children, and it’s apparent that the kids aren’t the only ones longing to escape the “ghetto.”

Funny, truthful and more than a little discomfiting in its evocation of self-hating Jews, “Cheese Head” has more on its mind than the average adolescent romp. As a bonus, Daniel Hendler, the star of Daniel Burman’s Jewish-centric films (“Last Embrace,” “Family Law”), has a small role as the club’s activities director.

Cao Hamburger’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” was picked up for U.S. distribution after a warm reception at the major international festivals, so a review shall have to wait until it opens. Set in 1970, the film sensitively depicts the relationship between an Orthodox Jew and a 12-year-old non-Jewish boy left in his care when his parents are forced to flee the dictatorship. Soccer proves to be a common interest, unsurprising in football-mad Brazil.

In her ambitious documentary “The Labyrinths of Memory, “ Guita Schyfter weaves together two seemingly distinct sagas of exile and displacement. Each story is uncommonly powerful, but little if any resonance is added by their overlap.

One historical strand takes us to the Lithuanian town of Tluste, where Schyfter’s father was born and where members of the family were killed during the Holocaust. The filmmaker’s search — for the house that her father and uncle used to describe to her, the neighbors who might know what happened, the cemetery where her ancestors are buried — is unexpectedly raw and powerful.

The other (and more confusing) thread involves a Mexican woman who was adopted first by an American anthropologist and then by her Cuban godmother. Tete’s difficult, painful and ultimately gratifying search for her birth mother uncovers both the happy memories and ugly secrets of her early years.

The filmmaker doesn’t have to explain or justify her or anybody else’s need to seek out their roots. But she wraps her film in a pretentious philosophical overlay, complete with psychologists and anthropologists, casting the two stories as examples of an overriding human impulse to know who we are and where we come from.

There’s some truth in that, but it doesn’t enhance the acute drama and real emotions that rise to the fore in “Labyrinths.” Sometimes filmmakers forget that a great story is all the justification that audiences require.

“The Year My Parents Went On Vacation” screens Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m. at the Castro in San Francisco and Nov. 16 at 6:15 p.m. at the Downtown 20, 825 Middlefield Road in Redwood City.

“Cara de Queso” (“Cheese Head”) screens Nov. 10 at 5 p.m. at the Lark Theater, 549 Magnolia in Larkspur and Nov. 11 at 3:45 p.m. at the Camera 12 Downtown, 201 S. Second in San Jose.

“The Labyrinths of Memory” screens at Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. at the Lark. Tickets: $8-$10at www.cityboxoffice.com or www.latinofilmfestival.org, or call (415) 392-4400.

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