In 1944, 22 year old Hannah Senesh parachuted into Yugoslavia with a small group of Palestinian Jews. Their mission was to contact underground resistance in Hungary and to help rescue Jews from the recent German occupation. Disaster struck almost immediately upon crossing the Hungarian border, and they were captured. After several months of torture in prison, and shortly before the fall of the fascist regime in Hungary, Hannah was executed for "treason."
Senesh became a symbol of resistance for Palestinian Jews and remains a Joan of Arc figure for many today. Roberta Grossman's documentary "Blessed is the Match" goes beyond the symbol to find the flesh and blood woman who sacrificed her life for her beliefs and her people.
Hannah left behind ample written material, as did her mother Catherine. Catherine's memoirs (read by Joan Allen) frame much of the story which also relies heavily on Hannah's diaries and poems (read by Alona Tal.) Hannah was born into a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family. Her father was a playwright and she grew up with a strong literary and artistic background. Though Hungary was spared the brunt of the Holocaust until late in the war, Hannah still experienced discrimination at school. Motivated by her experiences, Hannah embraced Zionism in her late teens and moved to Palestine to become a farmer in 193, quite a shock to her mother who never pictured new daughter slopping cow manure. Hannah, however, was content with her decision and joined a kibbutz a few years later.
As war spread across Europe Hannah, like most of her friends on the kibbutz, lost contact with family members back home. She found herself in a difficult situation: relatively safe in Palestine, she felt a responsibility to help friends and family back home. In 1944, she volunteered for a special military mission. With the training and assistance of British forces, she parachuted into occupied territory to support the resistance and rescue her mother as well as other Jews.
Eyewitness testimony from Hannah's compatriots provides a much-needed perspective but Hannah's words, as well as those of her mother, are the heart and soul of the film. Her letters are a testament both to her dedication and to her intelligence, and her poetry ("Blessed is the Match" is a poem she wrote just before crossing the Hungarian border) suggests a vibrant young women. She knew the danger she was facing, and met it head-on.
The use of recreation footage is less successful, sometimes slowing down the film's pace to a crawl. Though Hannah was courageous, the actual story of her mission is a tragically brief one and Grossman has a challenge in telling it as a feature length documentary. The bulk of the last half hour is spent on Hannah's time in prison where her unflagging spirit proved an inspiration to her cell mates, but here the documentary feels like it's just marking time. So was Hannah, of course, and perhaps it is Grossman's intent to evoke this sense of helpless stasis.
Senesh remains a venerated figure today, and "Blessed is the Match" is a fitting, is somewhat fitful, tribute to her courage.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is adequate and image quality varies based on different video sources (photographs and some archival footage from the war are interspersed throughout the film) but in general it's competently rendered.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. No optional subtitles are offered but forced English subtitles support all non-English dialogue.
The DVD includes three Deleted Scenes (5 min.), a Photo Gallery, a Trailer and a text-based Filmmaker Biography.
Grossman's mix of recreation footage and narrated written material is sometimes clunky, but she's dealing with a remarkable subject in Hannah Senesh. Though the documentary paints a glowing portrait of Hannah, it does allow for some minor criticism: one fellow soldier admits that he admired her more than he liked her. This helps support the film's efforts to show that this symbolic figure was a real person whose sacrifice should not be viewed as mythology, but the profound a loss of a daughter and a brave, scared young woman.