Sunday, April 27, 2008

Film Review #157: Madame Rosa
1977/DVD forthcoming
Director: Moshe Mizrahi
Cast: Simone Signoret, Samy Ben-Youb, Michal Bat-Adam

When the jittery, shifty-eyed Kadir Youssef shows up, banging at Madame Rosa’s door eleven years after leaving his toddler son in her care, Madame Rosa (the incomparable Simone Signoret) improvises a demonstration for the boy so he can choose whether he wishes this man to be his father. Kadir Youssef is just released from the psychiatric hospital that held him all those years after he shot his wife, who turned fifteen tricks a day for him in the Paris streets. Now 65, in badly failing health and destitute, Madame Rosa has just two boys left from her international brood, children of younger, still working prostitutes left with her for a monthly fee. Roughly the same age, one is a Jewish boy in a skull cap, the other a Muslim boy named Momo (Samy Ben-Youb’s only film role), who has lately taken to introducing himself as “Algerian” to satisfy his own questions.

As a make-shift foster mother, Madame Rosa has conscientiously attached each of her charges to someone from their own background – a Vietnamese boy to a Vietnamese grocer, an African child to the jovial Senegalese pimp Amèdée (musician Ibrahim Seek), and Momo to Mr. Hamil (Gabriel Jabbour), an elderly Arab rug dealer fond of Victor Hugo whose admonitions include the idea that one cannot live without love. Madame Rosa herself survived Auschwitz to return to Paris after World War II. (In one harrowing scene, her mind fragile, she imagines she’s again ordered to take just one bag and report for the train trip east.) She boasts she now keeps identity papers that go back many generations and prove she’s not Jewish, just in case. Madame Rosa also has a secret, locked cellar room with a Menorah that she calls her “Jewish hide-away.” She retreats there when plagued by nightmares or, with Momo’s help, when the aged Dr. Katz (Claude Dauphin) tries to put her in the hospital, where she fears she’d be kept alive for experiments.

So Madame Rosa has not mixed up these boys. But she tells Kadir Youssef, shrugging after she checks her records – here we see the contents of that battered suitcase – and nodding toward Moïse, who’s clearly accustomed to going along with her tales to strangers, “I made a mistake. I mixed up the religions. I brought up Mohamed as a good little Jew. He’s a little bit Jewish, he’s still your son.”

An apoplectic Kadir Youssef screams, “I want my son back in an Arab state!”

Serenely, Madame Rosa answers, “In this household we have no Jewish states or Arab states.”

In this moment, the luminous Madame Rosa – she who retired from prostituting after age 50 “for aesthetic reasons” – also alters each boy from his past enough that he becomes free to choose it, to change his own beginning and hence his own ending. Israeli filmmaker Moshe Mizrahi makes such self-invention a means of transcendence, a species of art itself. Thus for example Momo’s concocted alibi about Madame Rosa’s long-lost Israeli relatives sending for her. Or his grieving, distracted exchange with the statuesque black hooker Madame Lola (Stella Annicette), whom he tells he's stopped eating. When Lola, an ex-boxer who “took injections,” scoffs that hunger is a law of nature, Momo retorts, “I could care less about nature’s laws!” After a beat, Lola laughs, “Well, neither could I!” And when Momo follows the young film editor Nadine, who becomes his life-line (Michal Bat-Adam, herself a noted filmmaker, Mizrahi’s wife and later his frequent lead), he’s mesmerized precisely by cinema’s capacity to “make the world go backwards.”

Winner of 1978’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Madame Rosa is hard to find in the US unless you’re willing to pay big bucks on-line. Only a handful of Mizrahi’s films are currently available in the US, some on netflix and several more on-line. Lately Netflix has promised a new DVD of Madame Rosa that you can reserve, maybe because Mizrahi has a new film entitled Weekend in Galilee. See both on the big screen right here in Syracuse later this month, with Mizrahi himself making the trip too, thanks to the Syracuse International Film Festival.

Madame Rosa is part of SIFF 2008’s retrospective honoring Moshe Mizrahi. Screenings include I Love You Rosa, Madame Rosa, Every Time We Say Good-bye & the USA premier of Mizrahi’s new film, Weekend in Galilee. USA premier of Michal Bat-Adam’s new film, Rita Working Title also at SIFF. Complete SIFF schedule at