Devil's Arithmetic

Based on a popular children's novel by Jane Yolen, this Showtime film opens in New Rochelle, N.Y., as Hannah (Kirsten Dunst) and some teen-age buddies visit a tattoo shop. Before she can decide which tattoo would suit her, she has to dash. Hannah's parents are expecting the reluctant teen to join them at a family seder. During the seder, Hannah is asked to open the door to the prophet Elijah. When she does so, she finds herself in 1940s Poland. The bewildered Hannah is taken up by the gentle Rivkah (Brittany Murphy) and introduced to the customs of Polish Jews. Within hours Hannah, Rivkah and the other Jews are arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Hannah's dreadful experiences there give her a new and deep appreciation of her religious heritage and spiritual strength. While Devil's Arithmetic is clearly meant for a teen-age audience, older viewers might find the movie interesting for its depiction of family love and historic religious customs.

Gabbeh

For an illuminating example of storytelling in another culture, consult director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's lyrical Gabbeh. This Iranian film, in Farsi with English subtitles, mixes aspects of contemporary Iranian culture with some venerable Persian customs to produce an intriguing tale. The gabbeh of the title is a finely crafted rug. It has been specially woven to tell the story of a man and woman who flee on horseback across a blue expanse. When an elderly couple washes the gabbeh in a spring, the woman in the rug magically comes to life and proceeds to recount her highly romantic tale. Apparently, she was a love-struck young woman who desperately wanted to marry her suitor, but her forbidding father continually found reasons why she could not. So, for months, she traveled reluctantly with her rug-weaving tribe, helping her family, herding sheep and preparing rugs. Eventually, her predicament is resolved in a most dramatic way. Gabbeh is a beautifully shot film, filled with lush and colorful imagery. It's also a highly imaginative film, with a decidedly non-Western point of view.

Loretta G. Seyer is editor of Catholic Faith & Family.