One Day You'll Understand, the 2008 French film, is not an unexpected work by Amos Gitai. The Israeli director's past efforts include a searing dissection of Orthodox Jewish society (Kadosh (1999)) plus countless semi-experimental narratives and documentaries such as House (1980), the biography of a home from its original Palestinian owners to its current Israeli inhabitants.
In this recent effort, an adaptation of a novel by Jerome Clement, Gitai once again sidesteps sentimentality, as is his wont, to tell the tale of a Jewish woman, Rivka (Jeanne Moreau), who was married to a Gentile during World War II. They had two children, but only one -- her son, Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), who was born after the war and raised a Catholic -- now wants to know what occurred during those years.
The film begins in France in 1987. Rivka, graceful even with her hair in curlers, is cooking dinner as the eighth day of the Klaus Barbie trial is being broadcast over TV. (Barbie, who'd been head of the Gestapo in Lyon, had been responsible for the one-way deportation of thousands of French Jews to concentration camps.)
The televised voices from the courtroom might as well have been background music in that they seem to have no effect on Rivka, at least until a Ms. Leah Weiss, a survivor of the Rue-Sainte-Catherine roundup, is called to take the stand. Under questioning, she recalls how on being captured, one Nazi soldier stated, "Another little Jewish pussycat." Suddenly, Rivka burns her hand on a pot.
Concurrently, Victor is in his office going through his family's papers when he discovers an old note written by his late father to the prefect of police: "It is my honor to send you the declaration demanded by the law of June 2, 1941, as regards my wife of Jewish origin...married to me, an Aryan...."
Did Dad have to write this note? Did this missive lead to the death of his in-laws? How come his own parents later moved into Rivka's parents' home? And how come he kept a Nazi dagger in his apartment?
In another superb performance by Ms. Moreau, whose silences often carry as much meaning as most other stars' lengthy diatribes, Rivka will do anything not to answer these questions. She'll change the subject to overcooked vegetables or there being too much fat on the meat. She'll suddenly leave the table with an "I forgot the salt" or morph the conversation into an announcement that there's a sale coming up she's interested in. And when Victor gets more insistent, she'll reply, "Your father was a charming man."
But eventually Rivka does open up and does pass on the Jewish star she was forced to wear during those "blanked out" days -- but not to her son.
One Day You'll Understand asks: What does it mean to have a Jewish past? What is it to be a Jew yet not raised a Jew? And can we judge past actions without ever knowing their true motivations?
Except for some jarringly unexpected flashback sequences, the film engages with its highly understated manner of depicting bottled-up pain. As always, Gitai focuses on characters who are neither totally black nor white, and like his better work such as Kippur (2000), this film leaves an invigorating intellectual aftertaste. - Brandon Judell
One Day You'll Understand is available on DVD from Kino.
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).