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Written & Directed by
Jeremy Davidson 
Produced by
Mary Stuart Masterson, Steven Weisman, Peter C. B. Masterson, Paul Schnee & Davidson
Released by Barn Door Pictures/highbrow entertainment
USA. 91 min. Not Rated
Lawrence Pressman, Daniel Sauli, Annie Parisse, Ronald Guttman, Victoria Clark & Eli Wallach

In beautifully photographed settings, Tickling Leo brings together an excellent cast, which almost overcomes the film’s very labored themes.

Zak Pikler (Daniel Sauli) and his girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse) are frolicking in autumnal Central Park when he receives a call from his Uncle Robert (Ronald Guttman) that he should check on his father. Over symbolically, the call occurs toward the end of the introspective period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Jews consider their sins of the previous year and seek reconciliation with people they may have wronged.

So Zak reluctantly worries when his father doesn’t answer the phone. He and his uncle should be concerned because Zak’s father, the Hungarian-born poet Warren Pikler (Lawrence Pressman), is the wild-eyed naked guy chasing ghosts in the woods in the film’s opening. As if that isn’t portentous enough, at a rest stop restaurant on the way upstate to their lake house, Zak and Delphina are freaked by a soothsayer-like elderly man, who recognizes Zak as the grandson of Emile, a man Zak has never met. The stranger also gratefully credits Emile for saving his life.

Zak (full name Isaac, like the son Abraham would have sacrificed to God) has no shortage of bad memories of his brooding father, who rigidly rejected family and religion, and remained silent about Zak’s grandfather. The only enthusiasm they shared was the stars in the sky—the Leo of the title refers to the lion constellation, a historic symbol of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, Delphina repeatedly insists Zak should accept responsibility for his past. (Her name seems to reference the Delphi oracle since she keeps getting asked if she’s Greek). And at the lake house, Uncle Bob boisterously arrives with his new ditzy wife (Victoria Clark), who prattles on about reincarnation. He also brings food to break the Yom Kippur fast, good memories, and bad news for the immediate future.

The familial conflicts with their mythic allusions are just a setup for the reverberation of survivor’s guilt from the Holocaust. While that is a frequent theme in films, Emile’s specific bargain with the devil, which haunts Warren, is not. The family was on the infamous Kasztner Train that carried 1,700 Hungarian Jews to Switzerland in 1944, when the rest of Hungarian Jewry was sent directly to Auschwitz. Bribes to Eichmann were only part of the financial and moral cost to get on that train. The story of that fraught escape is documented in extras on the DVD being issued simultaneously with the film’s theatrical release, and is probably a lot more intriguing than this fictional and sometimes confusing effort to give a contemporary echo to horribly difficult choices. The reunion with the nonchalantly forgiving grandfather (the charming nonagenarian Eli Wallach) on a Manhattan rooftop seems more like a curious epilogue than a satisfying emotional culmination to writer/director Jeremy Davidson’s unconvincing debut feature. Nora Lee Mandel
August 24, 2009



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