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Indie Theater Roundup: 7 Movies to See This Week at the Jewish Film Festival

Liz Garbus chronicles Bobby Fischer's brilliant career as a chess master – and the increasingly bizarre, anti-Semitic outbursts that marked his later years – in Bobby Fischer Against the World, arriving at the Castro on Saturday afternoon.

San Francisco's 31st Jewish Film Festival – the largest of its kind in the world, attracting roughly 30,000 attendees each year for three weeks of top-notch independent cinema – has returned to the Castro. Among this week's highlights:

1. Bobby Fischer Against the World

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 23
Why: Liz Garbus (TV's America Undercover) follows the controversial Fischer's journey from Jewish child prodigy to reclusive chess master to virulent anti-Semite. Focusing on his memorable 1972 World Championship match with Boris Spassky, the film plays like a taut Cold War drama. More than a career biography, Against the World is a fascinating chronicle of a complicated, often confounding life, led by a man whose genius was as celebrated as his madness was derided.

2. Spartacus
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 24
Why: Film festival honoree Kirk Douglas will introduce Stanley Kubrick’s swords-and-sandals drama, beautifully restored in widescreen, about the legendary gladiator Spartacus, leader of a slave revolt in pre-Christian Rome. Two committed leftists, Jewish novelist Howard Fast and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, wrote and adapted the 1960 epic that captured four Academy Awards. In a heroic revolt of his own, Douglas, who produced and starred, insisted on giving rightful credit to Red Scare target Trumbo, effectively ending the Hollywood blacklist.

3. Little Rose
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 26
Why: Rose examines Poland’s repressive political environment in the late '60s, making sharp dramatic use of totalitarianism’s contamination of private relationships. Jan Kidawa-Blonski’s award-winning espionage thriller opens as news of the Six Day War arrives with the message that Israel’s gains represent a threat to Poland. In this paranoid atmosphere, a blonde bombshell is hired by the secret police to spy on a renowned intellectual suspected of subversive views.

4. Phnom Penh Lullaby
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 27
Why: Polish documentarian Pawel Kloc’s Lullaby profiles naïve and desperate Israeli tarot-card reader Ilian Shickman, who struggles each night to make a living in Cambodia on an avenue crowded by child prostitutes, pimps and drunken tourists. (Adding to his frustrations: an alcoholic girlfriend whose breast milk might be poisoning his infant child.) While Shickman's story is almost oppressively bleak, it would be hard to deny the crushing impact of Kloc's unflinching journey to the dark side.

5. Incessant Visions: Letters from an Architect
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 28
Why: Following the Nazi Party's rise to power, Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn fled to London. There he met future president of Israel Chaim Weitzman, who offered him the chance to become the "national architect" of the Jewish state-to-be. In 1937, Mendelsohn relocated to Jerusalem; four years later, as Rommel advanced on Egypt, he fled once again – this time to America, where Frank Lloyd Wright helped him to arrange an exhibition of his works in New York. Duki Dror's documentary, a testament to the integrity and timelessness of Mendelsohn's vision, brilliantly illuminates his life and work.

6. Tevye
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 27
Why: Yiddish Art Theater’s Maurice Schwartz adapted, directed and stars in this 1939 melodrama based on the Sholem Aleichem stories that would later inspire Fiddler on the Roof. Protagonist Tevye the Milkman struggles to uphold tradition in the face of chaos, including the scandalous elopement of his daughter Chava with the gentile Fyedka. For those with an affinity for Yiddish language and culture, Tevye is a must-see.

7. Jews in Toons
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., 415-621-6120
When: July 25
Why: Three popular cartoons – South Park, The Simpsons and the woefully inane Family Guy – take to the big screen for an evening of Jewish-themed comedy, hosted by Emmy-winning Simpsons producer Mike Reiss, who will share insights and amusing anecdotes from his illustrious 22-year career in television.