It's 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning, and we're sitting in a former Methodist church. So it's no wonder the man gesticulating forcefully at the front of our congregation could be mistaken for a preacher. His voice changes pace, lilt, and volume at intervals, similar to man possessed by "the spirit." But Shelly Isaacs, founder and intellectual cleric of Café Cinematheque International, has his own particular gospel.
"I love international film," he says.
Sitting in the outdoor café area adjacent to Cinema Paradiso in downtown Fort Lauderdale, he greets his regulars, of which there are well over a hundred. They stream past, and he stands to greet each by name. With most, he shares an inside joke or two and encourages all to take a free pastry inside the lobby, even though, as he says repeatedly, "It's about the film, not the food."
Isaacs' mission is to bring contemporary foreign films to South Florida and to create a larger conversation about the films by hosting a Q&A afterward. The other 30 days of the month, he's a freelance creative director for various advertising firms, a transplanted New Yorker who, by his voice, could not be mistaken for hailing from anywhere else. When he moved here in 1997, he immediately noticed a dearth of foreign film in local theaters and by 2000 was already curating a French film series that eventually morphed into Café Cinematheque International. It's now a once-a-month screening that's global in scope.
When the Sunrise Cinema chain, his original venue, told him last year that it couldn't host his series anymore, Cinema Paradiso swooped him up, and the two seem like a perfect match. In January, the first Café Cinematheque hosted by Paradiso drew 200 people.
"I'm home," Isaacs says.
And he looks very much at home standing in front of the microphone and introducing The Edge of Heaven, a 2007 film written and directed by a young Turk-German named Fatih Akin. Isaacs has a natural command of the room as he explains that the film connects the dots between several Turkish and German citizens whose national and ethnic allegiances ultimately prove less important than the ones forged by love. He calls it a "hyperlink" film and compares it to Babel, the foreign critical darling of 2006. He notes that whereas "Babel went for your throat, [The Edge of Heaven] lifts you up." In response, the congregation responds with nodding and pointed questions. Like a true preacher, Isaacs has created believers.
On April 5, Isaacs' cinematic sermon will be almost 40 years in the making. French director Jean-Pierre Melville made Army of Shadows in 1969, but the film wasn't released in America until the Criterion Collection restored it in 2006. In the intervening years, many French critics called it the best film ever made about the French resistance in World War II, despite the fact that its grim realism tested audiences upon its first run. In retrospect, however, it becomes one of the only films to deal honestly with the anti-Nazi resistance, and a chance to see it on the big screen is a rare event.