Movie Review By Andrea Chase
With the documentary "Island of Roses," filmmaker Gregori Viens takes a snapshot of a culture and a language that is passing from the land of the living to that of scholars and libraries. It tells the story of the Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish community that migrated from the Island of Rhodes to Los Angeles, a community that is losing its identity as the original immigrants die off and their children and grandchildren are assimilated into the American melting pot.
Sephardic Jews originally came from Spain where it is believed they had lived since 800 BCE. Their language, Ladino, is a type of Spanish that has changed little since the Middle Ages. Despite that long history, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, in addition to financing Columbus' voyage of exploration, also expelled their Jewish subjects. Those that settled in the Ottoman Empire, and the Island of Rhodes in particular, found tolerant hosts in the Turks and the freedom to pick up their cultural lives where they had left off. They flourished for 500. Now, though, only a handful remains on the island, driven out by a changes in government and, finally, the holocaust.
Viens films customs and traditions little known outside the Sephardic community, such as faith healings and wedding rituals. He also documents the dwindling population that came from Rhodes. Things like their attachment to Catalina Island, which reminds them of home. One woman fondly and vividly recalls every street in her old neighborhood and Viens shows footage of how it has and hasn't changed. A fountain remains, but the synagogue is now for tourists only, the eternal light, isn't anymore.
The film then follows the second generation, the one born here and eager to assimilate, little realizing that their children would be just as eager to embrace the old ways. While it is hard to find anyone under the age of 50 who still speaks Ladino, Viens shows the uphill battle of the third generation getting back to their roots, even if it's only learning how to cook Sephardic delicacies.
"Island of Roses," available on video, is a well-made bittersweet appreciation of a particular community. But the universal experience it shows of generational change will resonate with anyone who sees it. For more information, call (310) 552-7902.
© 1998 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 1/12/98
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