Intimate Stranger (1991)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

USA, 1991. Screenplay by Alan Berliner. Cinematography by Alan Berliner. Produced by Alan Berliner. Film Editing by Alan Berliner.

Alan Berliner investigates his own family history for this personal yet deeply imaginative documentary. It begins with the news that his grandfather, Joseph Cassuto, a businessman with aspirations to international diplomacy, has died after being hit by a car; a magnificent personality and a life never free of fascinating incident is extinguished in an instant, leaving behind a wealth of memories in his surviving relatives that they share with Berliner’s camera.

A kaleidoscope of images appear before us as we hear and never see Cassuto’s children and other relatives, their snippets of dialogue brilliantly assembled by the director who puts the man’s life in biographical order but editorializes it with a number of conflicting opinions. Cassuto, whose roots have been traced back to his ancestors’ expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition, was born in Palestine and spent most of his life in Egypt, succeeding as a cotton manufacturer who did a great deal of business with the Japanese, and coming to love Japan as a second home thanks to his business ties becoming personal ones. During the Second World War his wife and two of his children come to America for safety, and after a few years of difficult separation the rest of the family follows, but Cassuto never quite feels at home in the United States and continues his business affairs in Japan, his many lengthy trips there putting devastating strain on his marriage.

Cassuto’s children, who grew up having a complex relationship with him, relate tales of man who has become a myth in their minds: charismatic, bon vivant and open-hearted, with an almost quixotic desire to rise above his commercial accomplishments and achieve political glory with his multiple nationalities, but he was also a mass of contradictions, a proud Zionist Jew who also went stealthy when necessary with less tolerant clientele, and a man embraced by an entire nation halfway around the world but who was very discouraging with his own children, whose aspirations he often criticized. Berliner tells a story so directly applicable to himself, and in doing so also does a marvelous job of relating a much bigger narrative about the impossibility of reducing anyone’s life to a simple description, and the possibility that we never truly know people as well as we think we do.

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