Sometimes it seems a miracle that Canadian movies ever get made. Shoestring budgets, tight shooting schedules and fickle patterns of public financing have fostered a climate of chronic insecurity among domestic film-makers. The movies that actually do make it to the screen tend to be a hardy breed, stories imbued with the same sort of earnest determination required to produce them. Two Canadian features that opened recently, Malarek má The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick, are period movies about ethnic heroes struggling to erase injustice. Malarek is an investigative thriller about a cub reporter uncovering a scandal in Montreal; Glick is a sentimental comedy about growing up Jewish in smalltown Manitoba. Both are quintessential^ Canadian: at a time when popular culture is afflicted by what New York City’s Spy magazine recently called “the irony epidemic,” Glick and Malarek are brimming with old-fashioned, unironic sincerity.
Named the best Canadian film at festivals in Toronto and Vancouver last fall, Glick is the more accomplished of the two movies. Adapted from a 1982 novel by Toronto lawyer Morley Torgov, it is set in 1964 and was filmed on location in the Prairie town of Beausejour, Man. The story revolves around 13-year-old Maximilian Glick (Noam Zylberman), a precocious but well-mannered boy who is facing two intimidating rites of passage: a bar mitzvah and a piano competition. Max’s piano teacher (Nigel Bennett) has teamed him up with another promising student, a blond girl named Celia (Fairuza Balk), to prepare a four-handed duet for the provincial finals. Celia, however, is not Jewish, and the boy’s family disapproves.
Max suffers from too much parenting. Hovering over him is an array of relatives, including his father (Aaron Schwartz), who runs an appliance store; his grandfather, a crusty patriarch played by Jan Rubes; and his humorless grandmother, portrayed by Susan Douglas
Rubes Qan’s wife). “Jewish parents never let their children grow up,” declares Max. “I guess that’s why they call us the Children of Israel.” Salvation arrives in the form of a new rabbi hired by the local synagogue, an unlikely Orthodox Jew from Chicago named Teitelman (Saul Rubinek). With his long beard, black hat and curly sidelocks, he sends shock waves through Beausejour’s timid Jewish community, which has tried so hard to remain invisible. Teitelman is also a frustrated stand-up comedian, a sort of Roger Rabbi whose sermons are riddled with wisecracks—“God said to Moses, Take two tablets and call me in the morning.’ ” Rubinek gives an animated performance as the rabbi, who becomes Max’s mentor in a battle against intolerance.
A heartwarming comedy in which emotional rifts heal as if by magic, Glick has a naive quality: it is like a Jewish Walt Disney movie. At times, its brotherhood themes are too cutely portrayed—the British piano teacher and his Japanese-Canadian wife are a walking advertisement for multiculturalism. Still, Glick portrays the parochial dilemmas of a Jewish community with candor. And the relationship between the boy and the rabbi has undeniable charm. Meanwhile, Allan Goldstein’s direction is fluid, the photography is lush—and the script resonates with genuine experience. “My family is like a bunch of wire hangers in a closet,” complains Max at one point. “You reach out for one and you get an armload all tangled up.”
Like Glick, Malarek has a ring of authenticity. A drama about a rookie reporter’s crusade to break a controversial story, it is partly based on a 1984 autobiography by Victor Malarek, now a senior reporter at Toronto’s Globe and Mail. In the movie, Malarek bluffs his way into a job at a fictional newspaper called The Montreal Tribune in 1971. On his first assignment, he stumbles across an alarming episode of police brutality, which leads him to investigate a coverup of teen suicides in Montreal’s juvenile detention centre. The Tribune refuses to print his exposé until he has more concrete evidence. Looking for leads, the reporter ends up harboring an escaped teenage offender and has nightmarish flashbacks to his own past as a delinquent. For Malarek, getting the story becomes an obsessive crusade to save juveniles from an abusive system—and a personal quest for legitimacy.
Elias Roteas, a Montreal-born actor of Greek descent, gives a superb performance in the lead role. Roteas bears a striking physical resemblance to American actor Robert De Niro. In fact, in 1988’s Tucker: A Man and His Dream, he played the role of a car designer that director Francis Coppola had originally conceived for De Niro. But Roteas, who starred as a skinhead in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), is an excellent actor in his own right. As Malarek, he creates a quirky, volatile character with compelling intensity. Rerrie Reane provides capable support as the crimedesk editor who overcomes her skepticism to become Malarek’s main ally at the newspaper. But the flicker of chemistry between the two characters is sadly undeveloped.
Instead, the one-dimensional script follows a high-action formula. Malarek is constantly barging his way into offices, having doors slammed in his face and being dragged out of buildings by security guards. The histrionics rarely let up. And Roger Cardinal’s choppy direction is more appropriate to television than the big screen. Intercutting a scene of Malarek banging his head on a car with a shot of a pounding gavel typifies his lack of subtlety. Although based on true incidents, Malareks story seems needlessly melodramatic. Offering few surprises, the plot drives like a battering ram toward a foregone conclusion. Even with the sincerest of intentions, it is often harder to make a credible movie out of a true story than out of fiction—an irony of film-making in any country.
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