Sephardic travelogue a wistful exploration of ebbing civilization

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An entrancing blend of history, travelogue and elegy, “The Last Sephardic Jew” is a lovely exploration of the legacy of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

This engrossing documentary, made for Spanish television, plays like a kind of exotic detective story in which the answers are ephemeral and tantalizingly out of reach.

As Israeli historian Moshe Shaul says with a half-smile, “To us, Spain is like a woman we loved but who cheated on us.”

“The Last Sephardic Jew” (“El ultimo Sefardi”) screens March 10 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts under the auspices of the Latino Film Festival. The festival originally showed Miguel Angel Nieto’s ambitious film in November in a co-presentation with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and this encore screening is an unexpected and marvelous treat.

The youthful Eliezer Papo, a Sarajevo-born lawyer, novelist and rabbi who teaches Ladino at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva — and, interestingly, at a Jerusalem high school — serves as our guide.

His first port of call is Thessaloniki, Greece, which became a haven when the Ottoman Empire was the only place to publicly offer refuge to the Spanish Jews. In fact, Spanish was the dominant language in the Greek city — dubbed “the Jewish republic” — until World War II.

In a six-month period of 1943, the Nazis shipped 95 percent of the 55,000 Sephardim to Auschwitz. A certain portion of the public, enticed by the Nazi promise of Jewish homes, collaborated in identifying and deporting Jews.

Papo next journeys to the island of Curacao, north of Venezuela, where 350 Sephardim still reside, and then to Sarajevo, where a small number lived quietly from 1945 until the civil war broke out in 1992.

“The Last Sephardic Jew” uses keys and trains as visual metaphors for the exile of the Spanish Jews, but its soundtrack sets the mood brilliantly with wistful melodies and songs.

In Istanbul, Papo meets a quartet of assimilated young Jewish musicians whose group is called, tellingly, Rio de Nostalgia. They don’t know or speak Ladino — a disappearing language that’s essentially gone from Turkey — but they play beautiful old Ladino tunes with extraordinary respect and passion.

Their brief number is one of the documentary’s highlights, and brings to mind the numerous American Jews who’ve formed klezmer bands as a way of preserving Yiddish culture.

Eventually, Papo makes it to Toledo, the capital of Jewish culture in Spain in the Middle Ages. The Jews lived in Spain for 1,500 years, and Papo finds their traces everywhere in Toledo — that is, in every store. From menorahs to necklaces, the Star of David is ubiquitous.

Here, and at many other points, the filmmaker holds Spain accountable for its treatment of its Jews 500 years ago.

The film ends on a philosophical and open-ended note, which is an unusual point of destination for a documentary. In this case, the lack of closure seems perfectly appropriate.

The Last Sephardic Jew” (“El ultimo Sefardi“) screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. Tickets: $7-8. Information: (415) 978-2787 or www.yerbabuenaarts.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.