Friday, August 11, 2017

Orthodox Views: Menashe, The Women’s Balcony and The Wedding Plan

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Menashe.

It’s probably a bit ironic that, of late, movies about Orthodox Jewish communities in America and Israel (Holy Rollers, Ushpizin, Fill the Void) have been popping up on our movies screens, made by both secular and religious filmmakers. I say ironic because unless they get dispensation from their rabbis, Orthodox Jews won’t go see any of the movies even if they're interested in doing so. Yet their closed-off and rule-driven world will likely continue to be fodder for directors who find them to be fascinating subjects for the cinema. Three new movies offer proof positive of that curious view.

Menashe is being billed as a highly authentic look at the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and it certainly fits the bill: most of its cast is Hasidic (mostly non-actors) and often the camera is unobtrusive as it captures real scenes of the neighbourhood residents going about their daily business. (Many of the actors remain unbilled so as not to get into trouble in their community.) Loosely based on lead actor Menashe Lustig’s life, it’s the story of a Hasidic misfit, Menashe, whose community treats him mostly with disdain and disapproval. The recently widowed Menashe has a ten-year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who is currently being raised by Menashe’s stern brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), since Menashe has basically been deemed an unfit father as he is in no hurry to remarry and thus provide what is perceived as a proper Jewish home for the boy. The film follows him as he tries to regain custody of his son even as he attempts to resist Eizik’s blandishments to return fully to the fold.

With the exception of a bissele (bit) of English, Menashe unfolds entirely in Yiddish, the language most of these Jews speak. Yiddish happens to be my first language and unlike some movies where the actors learn the language phonetically, this Yiddish is perfect, although some of the actors
besides Lustig, who is fine do bite off their words and don’t enunciate as well as they could. But its feel is that of a Jewish version of Marty, that 50s kitchen sink drama of butcher Marty (Ernest Borgnine) trying to find love. Menashe is set in his ways, like Marty, and more than a little rebellious; he’s munching on a sandwich in one scene set in a bodega, where the likelihood that the food is kosher, as mandated by Orthodox Jewish law, is nil. But what has gotten him in Dutch with his community is the perception and likely fact that he neglected his wife as she lay dying. Later, we find out that it was an arranged marriage and not a very harmonious one.

Deliberately low-key and underplayed, Menashe -- directed and also shot by Joshua Z. Weinstein, who was raised in the Conservative Jewish community, and written by Weinstein with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed -- is arresting as long as it focuses on Menashe himself. Lustig is an expressive actor, whose character is a bit of a schlimazel (unlucky or a screw-up) and someone who, if he were younger, probably would have had the courage to leave Orthodoxy behind. (His inconsistent approach to praying and keeping kosher doesn’t negate his genuine interest in the holy books and scholars of his religion.) But he is also a caring, if occasionally careless, father and Lustig’s scenes with the young actor playing his son are very touching, though the boy is not especially interesting on his own.

I wish, though, that Weinstein had extended the generosity of character he gives Lustig to the other adult figures in the film. Both Eizik and the (uncredited) actor who plays his boss in the kosher market where he works are given no quarter. They’re portrayed as assholes, pure and simple, even though Eizik has good reason to be judgmental of his brother-in-law and suspicious of his promises to do better and even though his boss has to put up with an employee who is frequently late for work and sometimes costs him a lot of money. (Inexplicably, he doesn’t fire Menashe when he accidentally ruins a grand’s worth of gefilte fish. Menashe then has the chutzpah to ask him to consider giving him a loan.) These two-dimensional portraits thus simplify the depiction of the Orthodox community as a whole, though one scene with Menashe on a date tellingly allows a Hasidic woman to rant about the childishness of most Orthodox Jewish men, who, she insists, are quite incapable of taking care of themselves -- a plausible scenario in a religious community that leaves all the housework and cooking to the women. She comes across as pretty objectionable and not at all sympathetic in the telling, though, which undermines her words. Better is a lovely scene with Menashe drinking with a couple of Hispanic employees of the market, who see in him a kindred spirit who also doesn’t belong in the environment encompassing them. Still, by the movie’s end – when Menashe has to make a crucial, possibly even tragic, decision as to what he wants out of his life – the film hasn’t so much built to a dramatic effective crescendo as much as limped to a flat, pale conclusion. Ultimately, Menashe is not as memorable as hoped for, nor as Menashe himself certainly is.

Orna Banai, Sharon Elimelech, Evelin Hagoel, Einat Saruf, and Yafit Asulin in The Women's Balcony.

There’s an insightful scene in Avanim, Raphaël Nadjari's 2004 Israeli-set film, where Michale (Asi Levi), a 30-something woman who is not particularly religious, visits the yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish educational institution) with her father to do business with the elderly rabbi whom she has long known. She’s not wearing a head covering, as Orthodox Jewish women do out of modesty, but the rabbi doesn’t see that omission as offensive. That’s the way she is, he tells his younger colleague, she doesn’t mean anything by it. But the junior rabbi is incensed and tries to pressure Michale to cover up, which she adamantly refuses to do. I realized watching this scene that the most intolerant religious individuals in Israel today are apt to often be the younger ones, who have gotten used to the undue Orthodox sway and influence in the country and thus feel they can push their more secular fellow Jews around. The new Israeli film The Women’s Balcony doesn’t go quite that far in making that point, but its criticism of the new Orthodox realities in the Jewish state is implicit.

Directed by Emil Ben-Shimon and written by Shlomit Nehama, the film begins with a startling accident as the women's balcony in the local synagogue, where the women sit segregated from the men as per Orthodox custom, suddenly collapses, seriously injuring the rebbetzin (the rabbi’s wife) and putting her poor husband into such a tailspin, so lost is he without his spouse beside him, that he can’t perform his religious duties. When the younger Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) offers to take over the congregation until the elderly rabbi is himself again, all seems fine at first. But as it becomes clear that restoring the women’s balcony is not the priority for Rabbi David that the synagogue’s women think it should be – anything but, in fact – they rebel against him, withholding their support of their men until they get their way.

The Women’s Balcony is Lysistrata without the sex the women refuse to cook or clean for their men, which is just as much of a problem for them as withholding sex would be (likely sex is denied the men, too, but the movie doesn’t spell it out). But it’s not as simple as that. The women are not rebelling against strictures that most secular Jews and non-Jews would deem worthy of opposing the women are content to be separated from the men in shul (synagogue) – they just don’t see eye to eye with Rabbi David, who by their lights is more than a little extreme and who, they feel, is also rocking the boat in a way that is unnecessary. (Hence the Avanim comparison I made earlier.) That’s probably an analogy to today’s Israel, where men and women are not just kept apart if they want to pray at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site; the less religious Jews can’t even command an egalitarian site where the sexes can mix as the current Israeli government, under pressure from the Prime Minster’s Orthodox political allies, reneged on a promise to offer them just that. (In the past, before the creation of modern Israel, men and women mixed freely at the Wall. Of course, the British were ruling the country then and didn’t allow Orthodoxy to reign supreme.)

Screenwriter Nehama is Orthodox herself, which might explain why the women in the film are drawn in such a charming and nuanced manner – they’re all tough-minded people who often squabble among themselves and aren’t always on the same page with the protest but also clearly call the shots at home. They are acted by a flawless cast of performers, none of whom I was familiar with. (The movie is a big hit in Israel.) It’s in the direction of Ben-Shimon that the film falls down. He simply doesn’t bring any of his scenes to cinematic life and the movie is so stodgy that it plods where it should jump and blunts most of its satiric points. It’s a great idea for a film but The Women’s Balcony, ultimately, fails to land the comedic punches it clearly aimed for.

Noa Koler (left) in The Wedding Plan.

Interestingly, it’s the most simply plotted of the three Orthodox-themed films, The Wedding Plan, that is the most successful in achieving its aims. Writer-director Rama Burshtein already proved her bona fides with Fill the Void (2012), a quietly powerful and poignant film about an Orthodox Jewish family which is roiled when one of the daughters dies during childbirth and her sister decides she wants to wed her widowed brother-in-law. The Wedding Plan isn’t as complex a story as Fill the Void was but it’s just as effective a movie.

Less than a month before her wedding is to take place, Michal (Noa Koler), a vivacious but neurotic Orthodox Jewish Israeli woman in her 30s, is dumped by her fiancé, who tells her he doesn’t love her. That doesn’t faze her for long, as she decides that she will get married anyway, on the announced date and time, even though a prospective new groom is nowhere in sight.

It’s not a spoiler to point out that she gets her way – the movie makes it abundantly clear that her faith in what seems to be an unlikely outcome will pay off – but the fun in the film is discovering how and who her intended is to be. (It’s a revelation that makes sense but yet is also something of a surprise, or at least it was to me.) The movie is also quirky as hell – from the job Michal has as the proprietress of a mobile petting zoo to the oddballs she gets set up on blind dates with, including one who won’t even look at her sitting across the table from him, ostensibly because according to religious doctrine he can’t look at a woman he is not married to. (It's literally a 'blind' date!) And she’s surrounded by excitable women, who are either locked into tumultuous love/hate relationships or. like her non-Orthodox mother, insistent that she come to her senses. (Burshtein, like Noa in the film, is an Orthodox Jewish convert, who only became religious at age 25.)

Without Koler, in her first major film role, The Wedding Plan would not be the riveting film it is. Michal is exasperating, sexy, annoying, disturbed, determined, funny and forceful in equal measure, a sheer delight to watch on screen. As a secular Jew, I must add that I couldn’t help thinking that Michal could have had a much easier time of it if she widened her potential pool of suitors to any number of non-religious, but no doubt eligible, Jewish men in Israel who would be interested in marrying her. But though she briefly very briefly considers a secular pop star as a candidate for marriage, it’s clear that, by her lights, Michal must wed an Orthodox man. It would be unrealistic and likely a betrayal of Burhstein’s own beliefs to expect any other outcome in this film. But this Orthodox depiction is also the sunniest and least problematic one for those who hew to the fundamentals of Judaism.

The Wedding Plan is smoothly directed by Burshtein and, believe it or not, reminded me of the stellar comedic work of the great American filmmaker Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), whose movies were chock full of eccentrically likeable characters. To be sure The Wedding Plan is not quite in that league Sturges was a genius, after all – but in its adult feel- good manner and wry commentary on humanity’s foibles, it’s a genuinely fun trip down the aisle.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he will be starting to teach a course on fact based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He will also be lecturing on Israeli cinema in London, Ontario, beginning on Sept. 5.

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