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Jewish film fest tries to show people together; Movie: Comparing Bulgaria today vs. 50 years ago, 'After the End of the World' screened tonight at the Gordon Center shows not a lot has changed.


Worlds rarely seen unspool this month at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, as the 12th Baltimore Jewish Film Festival takes its audiences to countries and cultures far removed from Charm City.

From South Africa to Bulgaria, from ultra-Orthodox Jews to orchestral maestros, the seven films that make up this year's festival share two traits: They're films almost no one in these parts has seen, and they're films that -- at times subliminally -- promote the notion that we're all one people.

"We have a mission, which is to present what would be the best films from around the world, films with Jewish interests -- especially films that are recent and have not been shown commercially," says festival coordinator Claudine Davison. "That gives us a very nice diversity of subjects and points of view and cultures."

Already, the festival, which opened Saturday, has featured "Soleil," a 1997 French film starring Sophia Loren as the mother of an Algerian Jewish family during World War II, who must fend for herself while her husband is forced into hiding in France. Sunday, the German film "After the Truth" offered a fictitious trial of "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele.

But tonight's offering, set for 7: 30 at the Weinberg Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., makes that one-world theme most explicit. Director Ivan Nichev's "After the End of the World" is an intricately constructed comparison of the Bulgaria of 50 years ago and the Bulgaria of today, using an imagined reunion of childhood friends as its springboard. It's also a wistful recollection of a time when peaceful coexistence, even in the Balkans, was possible.

A Bulgarian-Greek-German co-production, "After the End of the World" stars Stefan Danailov as Berto Coen, an Israeli professor returning to the Bulgaria of his youth. In Sophia to lecture, Coen finds himself the unwelcome target of local mobsters, who want to buy his grandfather's former home to make way for a commercial development.

A disillusioned Coen finds the Bulgaria of today is little different from a half-century ago, when Stalinist functionaries, determined to impose a socialist state, ran roughshod over anyone -- and anything -- in their path. That included playing one people against another, flaming inter-ethnic fears that, at least when Coen was a boy, had subsided enough that poker games among the religious leaders of the Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Gypsies and Turks were held regularly.

Although the Communist regime may have fallen, it seems, the Communist mindset remains. That reality is poignantly reinforced when Coen is re-united with his Armenian childhood sweetheart, Arkasi Wartanjan, and discovers that society is still committed to forcing a wedge between them.

Beautifully photographed and delicately acted, "After the End of the World" takes a little while to get on track. But before long, its seemingly random mixture of the past and the present works its magic. Its tragic characters -- especially a photographer whose pictures of those halcyon days bring him only sorrow -- give the film an emotional weight that will make it stay with you long after the theater lights go on.

Guest speakers will lead post-film discussions for each movie. Other films scheduled for the festival are:

"Kadosh," an Israeli drama, in Hebrew with subtitles, of two sisters living inside the ultra-Orthodox community of Mea Shearim. From director Amos Gitai. Saturday, 8: 45 p.m. (sold out)

"My Yiddishe Mama's Dream," also in Hebrew with English subtitles, is the true story of Israeli opera conductor Daniel Oren, the child of an Arab father and a Jewish mother. Intercut throughout the film is "La Boheme," staged by Franco Zefffirelli and conducted by Oren. Directed by Asher Tlalim. April 13, 7: 30 p.m.

"The Giraffe," in German (with subtitles) and English, stars Maria Schrader, Dani Levy, David Strathairn and Jeffrey Wright. A Jewish woman is killed in a New York hotel, and investigators try to uncover her connection to a German Jewish factory owner, who may have been her father. Directed by Dani Levy. April 15, 8: 45 p.m.

In "The Children of Chabannes," director Lisa Gossels returns with her father to the rural French town where he was one of 400 Jewish children saved, schooled and nurtured by the townspeople. Co-directed by Dean Wetherall. April 30, 3 p.m.

Call: 410-542-4900, Ext. 239.

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