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Review: Inspiring ‘Aulcie’ profiles U.S. hoops player who found fame and faith in Israel

A man in a yarmulke sitting in a synagogue in the documentary “Aulcie.”
Aulcie Perry, the subject of the documentary “Aulcie,” in a synagogue.
(Hey Jude Productions)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The compact, cross-cultural documentary “Aulcie” is as open-hearted and quietly engaging as its title character, basketball phenom Aulcie Perry, who left the U.S. in 1976 to play center for Israel’s celebrated Maccabi Tel Aviv B.C. (basketball club). Unmatched fame and glory ensued for the gifted and charismatic athlete until real life got in the way and derailed his starry career.

Writer-producer-director Dani Menkin (“39 Pounds of Love”) concisely tracks Perry’s upbringing in violent Newark, N.J., and youthful devotion to basketball to his brief U.S. professional career, including being signed by the New York Knicks (only to be cut without playing a game) prior to his surprise recruitment to join Maccabi.

The 6-foot-10, Southern Baptist-raised, Black player may have seemed like a fish out of water in the Holy Land, but not for long. He quickly became an icon, giving basketball’s profile in the soccer-centric country a giant bounce as he led his team to its first Euroleague title in 1977 — and again in 1981.

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Evocative archival clips and photos are mixed with warm present-day interviews with Perry (now 71), his family and friends, former Maccabi teammates and colleagues, journalists and other observers to flesh out his roller-coaster trajectory.

Perry’s twisty, emotional tale includes a long romance with Israeli supermodel Tami Ben Ami (the towering, camera-ready couple is dubbed here the “Brangelina” of their day), his adoption of Israel as his homeland and conversion to Judaism, and later addiction to painkillers and other hard drugs. This last period led to charges of possession and use of heroin, an end to his time with Maccabi and a forced exit from Israel.

Then there was Perry’s 1987 conviction on charges of heroin trafficking, for which he served five years of a 10-year sentence in a North Carolina federal prison.

His return to Israel in 1995 for a “This Is Your Life” TV tribute to Shamluk Maharovsky, the pioneering Maccabi Tel Aviv manager and a father figure to Perry, is replayed here in touching and exhilarating footage from the show and swings the film back into uplift territory.

Perry, also known by his Hebrew name, Elisha ben Avraham, eventually moved back to Israel, where he still resides and remains a much-beloved figure.

The sports legend is forthright and pensive in his recollections, never shirking responsibility for his more untoward actions. His greatest regret — that he hadn’t seen his now-college-age daughter, Cierra, since she was an infant — becomes the film’s throughline as he finds a way to reunite with her. When they finally meet, it’s handkerchief time again. (Perry had remained closer to Aulcie Jr., his son from a mid-1970s, pre-Israel relationship.)

Menkin, who profiled the Maccabi Tel Aviv team and their first European Cup win in his 2016 documentary “On the Map,” attempts to enliven his visual palette with animated effects that, at times, can feel more distracting than essential. Otherwise, this is a compelling and inspiring portrait of a singular life journey.

'Aulcie'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 12, Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino


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