Emotional closing night: Poignant, star-studded film adds up Holocausts aftermath

The Holocaust-shadowed drama “Emotional Arithmetic” could not be more sensitively acted, exquisitely photographed or impeccably directed.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a way in which Paolo Barzman’s small-town-Quebec-set evocation of an awkward reunion could be improved. A measured, poignant accounting of the costs and benefits of remembering past crimes, this delicate film is a kind of love letter to survivors.

Yet, somehow, the addition is slightly off. This weight-of-the-world story barely spans 24 hours, flashbacks notwithstanding, and the resolution is much too glib given the characters’ psychic injuries. The upshot is that this beautifully crafted adaptation of Canadian author Matt Cohen’s 1990 book ultimately feels more like a short story — a vignette — than a novel with sweep and power.

“Emotional Arithmetic” screens on closing night, July 31, of the San Francisco portion of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival with the director in person. Co-presented by the Judah L. Magnes Museum, the film also plays on the festival’s first night, Aug. 2, in Berkeley and on final night of the entire festival, on Aug. 11 in San Rafael.

Barzman, the son of blacklisted screenwriters Ben and Norma Barzman, is concerned with an aspect of the Holocaust that isn’t often mentioned in movies, namely that damaged children became scarred, stunted adults.

Melanie (Susan Sarandon) lives with her older husband, a retired history professor named David (Christopher Plummer), in a deceptively tranquil farmhouse. Their view, complete with a lake, is made even more postcard perfect by the fall foliage.

She’s a bit atwitter as the film opens, in 1985, in anticipation of the arrival of an old poet friend. Jakob (Max von Sydow) has just been released from a Soviet gulag; his health is shaky but his eyes are bright. He is accompanied by an Irish etymologist, Christopher (Gabriel Byrne), whose presence tilts every relationship at a sharp angle.

Through a series of flashbacks, the film shows us that Melanie and Christopher met as young orphans in the French transit camp of Drancy in 1942. The older Jakob eventually was sent east to Auschwitz.

Although Christopher and Melanie knew each other only for a handful of months, they developed a profound bond that still connects them, even though they haven’t seen each other since.

David, the odd man out in this group, represents the vast majority of the population with no direct Holocaust experience. That doesn’t stop him from voicing his longstanding annoyance with Melanie’s attachment to the past and Drancy.

Out of guilt, or a responsibility to heal the world, Melanie has dedicated herself to campaigning for political prisoners around the globe. The Nazis are long gone, but there is no shortage of evil regimes.

The film suggests that going through life with one’s eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror is a recipe for melancholy and depression. At the same time, as the old saw goes, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.

As the day goes on, “Emotional Arithmetic” builds toward a restrained showdown over dinner among polite, educated people with an unhealthy devotion to the past. A weight is lifted from each of them by morning, but just how free and clear they are of their memories and responsibilities is a matter of opinion.

“Emotional Arithmetic” screens at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, 9:15 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre,

6:45 p.m. Aug. 5 at CineArts @ Palo Alto Square, and 8:45 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Information: www.sfjff.org.

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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.