Film-Forward Review: [MIRIAM]

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Directed by: Matt Cimber.
Written by: Matt Cimber & John F. Goff.
Produced by: Cimber & Max Guefen.
Photographed & Edited by: River Hagg.
Music by: Peter Bernstein.
Released by: Seventh Art.
Country of Origin: USA. 122 min. Rated PG-13.
With: Ariana Savalas, Dimitri Diatchenko, Peter J. Lucas, Beata Pozniak & Olga Vilner.

Well-meaning Miriam tries to fill what may be a gap in based-on-a-true-story Holocaust survivor films. There may be a need in American schools for a film in English, with no subtitles, about a flesh and blood teenage girl that is not a documentary filled with old people talking and that goes beyond the horrors of the concentration camps. Fateless, for example, followed a teenager to the camps and then post-war life in Hungary. Miriam Schaefer’s remarkable life in Lithuania from 1941 on also includes the less frequently filmed anti-Semitic culpability of local partisan thugs and the travails of Jews, here in the Soviet Union.

After her family is beaten into submission, herded into the Kovno Ghetto, and forced to work in the Slobodka labor camp, 14-year-old Miriam (Ariana Savalas) is rescued by the Jewish underground before her family is all sent to their deaths at the dreaded Ninth Fort. Blonde, as were a majority of successfully hidden children, she is given a fake identity as Margarita and put to work as a maid and an assistant for a Catholic couple. While the frail wife (Beata Pozniak) mothers her, the pharmacist husband (Peter J. Lucas) sexually abuses Miriam and impregnates her. He lords the secret of her Jewish identity over her even after his wife’s death and the country's liberation, until his other skullduggery gets him imprisoned. Returning to the protection of an old family friend in her hometown, Miriam shields herself and her child from Soviet persecution of Jews by retaining her alias, which becomes a bitter Catch-22 when she later attempts to emigrate to Israel.

Savalas gives a gung-ho performance, even ageing as Miriam in 1980 with minimal artifice. She is well supported by a couple of other performers, including Dimitri Diatchenko as her loving so-ironic-it-has-to-be-true KGB husband. Unfortunately, the film feels like a high school production with wooden and didactic portrayals against a production design almost as simple as Lars von Trier’s Dogville, surrounded by a cliché musical score. Savalas’s narration, with anguished questions to God, is starkly interrupted by factual testimony from three elderly survivors, whose voices are drowned out by translators. The real-life Miriam Schaefer is seen at the end.

From adaptations of Leon Uris novels on, there are still fewer dramatic films revealing the variety of women’s experiences during the Holocaust than men’s. But if parents or school teachers are tempted to turn to Miriam because they are reluctant to screen Paul Verhoeven’s sexier, violent, and less authenticated Black Book to educate youngsters on how Jewish women used their wits to survive Nazi occupation and post-war trauma, perhaps they could trust them to watch and learn from the many excellent documentaries in many languages, including Watermarks about Jewish women athletes, just to name one. Nora Lee Mandel
June 8, 2007



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