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In an reenactment, Meri Roth, right, as Hannah Senesh, & Marcela Nohynkova as her mother Catherine (Photo: Balcony Releasing)

Directed by
Roberta Grossman
Produced by
Grossman & Lisa Thomas
Written by
Sophie Sartain
Released by Balcony Releasing

USA. 86 min. Not Rated  

Hannah Senesh is largely remembered as a quixotic young resistance fighter dramatically parachuting into Eastern Europe to rescue fellow Jews from the Nazis. Since her death in 1944, she has become an iconic paragon of modern legend, so it is surprising that Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is the first documentary about her life.

Joan Allen reads extensive quotes from an extraordinary trove of Hannah’s diaries, letters, and poetry (the title is from one of her poems). But the boundless idealism of her youthful dedication would seem tragically trite if not balanced by insights from her mother, Catherine. Their relationship powerfully anchors the film. Though history is presented somewhat simplistically, surviving witnesses, documents, and scholars provide additional facts of a life packed with a cinematic array of experiences into only 23 years.

Opening (and closing) with Hannah’s huge funeral procession in the new state of Israel, the film struggles throughout to bring her back to life size. With her father dying when she was a child and her brother (voiced by Mark Feuerstein) sent to study in France, she was very attached to her mother. But as anti-Semitism spread around her in Budapest, she chose to embrace first her Jewish identity and then political Zionism. Her determination to be taken seriously as an applicant to an agricultural school and her just-in-time emigration to Palestine in 1939 would seem like another early-feminist coming-of-age account if she wasn’t such an emblem of swimming with and against historical tides.

Israeli filmmakers have sought for years to move beyond the stereotypes of the noble young Zionist pioneers entwined with the founding myth, so, at first, all those old newsreels of the hard workers making the desert bloom seem too cliché. But the interviews with Hannah’s classmates and fellow kibbutz settlers make her commitment to the movement real when they admit she was almost too much of an idealist, even to have time for boys. In the midst of this socialist idyll, though, she keeps in close contact with home, learns what is facing Europe’s Jews, and trains for military action in hopes of helping her mother and brother. Even though Israel’s President Shimon Peres knew her during this time, interviewing him, unfortunately, adds to the propaganda feel of the film.

Far more interesting are the interviews with Hannah’s fellow paratroopers as they step-by-step planned their warning mission from Palestine into Yugoslavia, and how they coordinated with local partisans and the British. The recounting of her last eight months of capture, imprisonment, torture, and execution is detailed in testimony not just from cellmates and other Gestapo prisoners, but, in an almost astonishing Hollywood coincidence, by her mother with whom she reunited.

But the moving eyewitness accounts are more and more interspersed with costumed reenactments that go beyond what Errol Morris uses in his documentaries to reexamine facts. By the end, Blessed Is the Match looks more like television history programs aimed at secondary school students, with period-style black-and-white photography. For 20th-century stories, this confusingly cheapens the impact of the genuine archival photographs and film.

The meticulously researched actions of this singular young woman surmount the film’s tone of an official eulogy and could bring her story to the next step for wider appreciationa feature film following in the footsteps of the women resistors in Marc Rothemunds fact-based Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Paul Verhoeven’s fact-inspired Black Book, and Gillian Armstrongs fanciful Charlotte Gray. Nora Lee Mandel
January 28, 2009



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