In a Purim film, Esther is a secret agent in Argentina – The Forward


In its long history, the Purim story has had its fair share of reboots. Because in every generation a new Haman arrives to oppress us, this genocidal adviser wore the face of Hitler, and when Stalin suffered a stroke on Purim, averting his own disastrous plans for the Jews, he wore a entirely different mustache. But what about revamping our hero, Esther, to fight those same villains?

“The Red Star,” a delightfully entertaining Purim film from Argentinian director Gabriel Lichtmann, now available to stream through Manhattan’s JCC, imagines a different kind of Jewish savior. Laila Salama’s reputation precedes her. She was, one character tells us, “the daughter of an MI6 agent, Rommel’s lover, Wiesenthal’s informant, she spied on Eichmann”. And if that weren’t enough, she was crowned Queen Esther of Buenos Aires in 1934. Well, almost – she disappeared to spy and avoid a fascist plot against the Jews before she could receive that honor.

If you were disappointed that Christopher Guest ditched the mockumentary format for his own “Thank You for Your Consideration” film, Lichtmann’s formula may satisfy you. Casting actor Héctor Díaz as a version of himself, Lichtmann strives to unravel the mystery of Salama after inheriting a musical score, a copy of Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” and storyboards of a movie, all related to his caption efforts.

Salama (Thelma Fardín) is fictional, but the events she contributes to are real. Rommel fell in El Alamein, Eichmann was captured by the Mossad while hiding in the pampas. And the Nazis indeed staged an elaborate rally in 1938 in Buenos Aires to celebrate the Anschluss (and we can thank Lichtmann’s multimedia approach for bringing us real and chilling footage of that event). At this point, you could be forgiven for wondering how this is light entertainment.

Lichtmann, known for his Passover comedy “Jews in Space,” embraces the tradition of Purim gallows humor. He makes one of his expert sources a British schoolteacher, whom we meet scolding a student’s speech during a rehearsal for “Twelfth Night.” Other contributors include an obsessive film that tells anecdotes about an unfinished 1950s biopic about Salama to Lichtmann’s pronounced disinterest. The Zelig-like absurdity of Salama’s career – which inspired a famous tango, “The Red Star” – is raucously implausible. Of course, we want to believe it because the heroism she displays is real, undertaken by countless real-life Jewish women. (The habit of twisting the details of these women into composite characters is passed on through the use of an actual film, “Wakolda”, which we are told only got the correct hair color from Salama .)

Coming in at a brisk hour and 10 minutes, Lichtmann’s unique cinematic spiel features archival Yiddish film from an Argentinian Purim festival – complete with tongue-in-cheek swastika floats and Hitler Hamans – and an engaging look at contemporary Yiddishkeit from Buenos Aires. Given the Persia themes of the Meggillah, which boasted both vibrant Jewish life and anti-Semitic sworn enemies, Argentina’s unique history is a fitting backdrop.

Salama, who had many other aliases and mixed with anti-Semites as an informant, is both an extraordinary figure and a person who probably speaks from the experience of an Argentinian Jew, who may need ask calculated leading questions when meeting a compatriot with a German. -sounding last name.

Like the best riffs on the Purim story, “The Red Star” is about Jewish survival against all odds and the creativity that sustains us. In centering our heroine, he goes a step further than most, reminding us of the many forgotten Esthers among us who, with no Mordecai in sight, overthrew the Hamans of history.

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