Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
I had the exciting opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time last week. While in Park City, Utah, I saw twenty-four films and attended a number of Q & As with filmmakers and cast members. One of my most memorable screening experiences was the film Fill the Void and my conversation the next day with director Rama Burshtein. The winner of the Ophir Award for Best Picture and Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year, Fill the Void didn’t make the shortlist of nine films which were then narrowed down to five nominees. This powerful movie is, however, making quite a splash at film festivals around the world, in Jerusalem, Venice, Toronto, New York, and now Park City, and audiences throughout the country will have the opportunity to see it when it is released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics.
Fill the Void is set in the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world in Tel Aviv. Its protagonist is eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), whose family matchmaker has found her the perfect suitor whom she will soon marry. Everything changes when Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies during childbirth, leaving her husband Yohai (Yiftach Klein) with a newborn child and no mother to take care of him. Devastated, Yohai cannot think of getting married again, but he soon finds himself with an offer of marriage from an old acquaintance in Belgium. Shira’s mother suggests that she could marry Yohai and continue the bond between their families, prompting her both Shira and Yohai to weigh the decision carefully.
This emotional premise sets in motion a deeply compelling story of love and community. What is especially refreshing is its faithful, uncensored portrayal of the Hasidic world. Most other films about observant Judaism, from The Jazz Singer to Holy Rollers, depict a struggle with adherence to faith and to Jewish values. Fill the Void is a magnificent look at life within a Hasidic sect, where, despite tragedy, both Shira and Yohai never let their faith waver. Additionally, while Shira’s mother pushes for the union, her father explicitly tells her that she does not need to accept it, and if she does not want it, they can stop discussing it immediately, dispelling any sense of her being forced into the marriage.
There is an honesty to Fill the Void that is remarkable, showing devout people whose conflicts are not with their religion but rather guided by them. One standout scene from the film features Shira and Yohai speaking outside Shira’s home. When Yohai approaches Shira, she tells him, “You’re too close,” acknowledging the prohibition between unmarried members of the opposite sex having physical contact that exists in Orthodox Judaism. Yohai backs away, but not before replying, “It could have been closer.” This is a film that addresses friendship and romance, all within the confines of an observant world. It is thought-provoking and meditative without suggesting that a break with tradition is necessary to resolve an impossible situation.
When I discussed the film with Burshtein, she said that she wanted to a make a film that is from the inside, not to do with the outside world. She herself is Orthodox, and previously made films for women only. She is overwhelmed by how the film has been received in Israel, and looks forward to experiencing more reactions from American audiences. Describing the Q & A from the film’s Sundance premiere, Burshtein noted that there were people who knew nothing about observant Judaism, but that there is something magical about the love story that can easily be applicable to other cultures.
Fill the Void deserved a place alongside Amour, fellow Sundance entry No, and the other Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees this year. Instead, Burshtein and the superb actors and crew members involved with the film will have to be content with the fact that their remarkable film is playing to increasingly larger audiences, and anyone who has not yet seen it should anticipate its release and make time for a creative, satisfying, moving film about faith.
Enjoy a few of my other top Jewish moments at Sundance as well!
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January 21, 2013 | 1:52 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
It’s a phrase that immediately recalls the grand exodus of the Jewish people, and a song often sung during Passover seders. Let My People Go is also the title of a new film now playing in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, Laemmle’s Playhouse, and Laemmle’s Town Center. This very entertaining movie is the story of Reuben (Nicolas Maury), a French-born gay Jew living in Finland whose life takes a crazy turn, which forces him to move him to spend time with his predictably loud and eccentric family. It’s a traditional Jewish comedy with a few important twists.
Reuben is not a religious man. He tells his mother that he dates goys specifically so that she won’t have them on holidays, and is sheepish about embracing his heritage upon his return to France. In a telling early scene, Reuben catches sight of The Ten Commandments playing on a television while he is in the airport, and he can’t escape the influx of Judaism into his life as his nephew prepares to chant the Mah Nishtanah at the Seder. Reuben even goes to consult his rabbi about how to detach himself from the Jewish people, and is told that even if he converts, he’ll still be seen as Jewish, pointing to Alfred Dreyfus as an example. Reuben’s family life is complicated, as his father wants to introduce him to his mistress of twenty years, and his sister’s wife has no qualms about outwardly expressing to the entire family that he believes that Israel was founded strictly as a way to get back at the Nazis.
Reuben’s mother, though she is French, should be instantly recognizable to American audiences as the typical Jewish mother. Rachel is first seen surrounded by a picture of Golda Meir and dancing at an exercise class to Hava Nagila next to a woman wearing an “I Heart Jerusalem” t-shirt. There is an imagined scene featuring a commercial in which Rachel advertises a “Jewish spray” that she can easily spray on her argumentative son-in-law to make him become Jewish. As portrayed by Carmen Maura, a frequent collaborator of director Pedro Almodovar, Rachel is the kind of character who can instantly remind anyone who grew up in a Jewish home of childhood.
The portrayal of overbearing, culturally identifiable mothers is not limited to those of a Jewish nature. Reuben’s Finnish boyfriend Teemu also has a strong-willed matriarch, who comes to see him after Teemu has kicked Reuben out and is having difficulty accepting his absence. When Teemu speaks derogatorily about prostitutes, his mother chastises him, telling him that prostitution is a career just like anything else. Let My People Go can be seen as an equal-opportunity offender, poking fun at Judaism, the French, Finland, and the idea of being gay. Reuben is a man who eternally finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, hopeless to control the life around him, and the audience gets a front-row seat to his light-hearted misery.
Let My People Go is a creative and inventive look at Jewish community and the healing power of holidays, an over-the-top adventure framed within a Jewish context. Antics which must be seen to be described lead to a chaotic but heartwarming Passover-night resolution, which gives some satisfaction to the film’s many discontent characters, including Reuben. It also possesses a surprising romantic streak, something that transcends religion or nationality. Though it might perhaps be more appropriate to screen this title in two months right around Passover time, it’s an enjoyable comedy that helps to enliven a January movie season that is typically devoid of quality so soon after all the Oscar films.
January 14, 2013 | 1:12 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Last Thursday, the Oscar nominations were announced. There were plenty of surprises, most notably the snubs of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director. Many of the films I discussed in last week’s post, “The Role of Religion at the Golden Globes,” have also been recognized. The Rabbi’s Cat had no luck cracking the Best Animated Feature field, but there is still some Judaism to be found among the nominees. One filmmaker with Jewish roots, Benh Zeitlin, who was profiled in a piece by the Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, found himself nominated for his first film alongside a veteran Jewish director, Steven Spielberg. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the Jewish content that populates several of the nominated films in two different categories.
The Best Documentary category is full of hard-hitting films with various focuses. How to Survive a Plague addresses AIDS, The Invisible War exposes sexual assault in the military, and Searching for Sugar Man examines the life of a famed musician. What’s considerably less expected is that the remaining two films in the category address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a major way. 5 Broken Cameras comes from Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and filmmaker Guy Davidi, and follows a Palestinian family’s life in the West Bank. The Gatekeepers, from director Dror Moreh, presents candid interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israeli’s secret service. Both films address the difficulties of achieving piece between Israelis and Palestinians, broaching the topic from a liberal angle. Both films are sure to cause controversy, and it’s intriguing to see them nominated in the same race. 5 Broken Cameras arrives on DVD tomorrow and is currently available to watch free on Hulu. The Gatekeepers opens in LA theaters on February 1st.
The other place that Judaism shows up among this year’s nominees is in the film The Sessions. This wonderful movie tells the true story of Mark O’Brien, a writer who lives his life in an iron lung after being paralyzed by polio as a child. O’Brien, portrayed by John Hawkes, who missed out on an Oscar nomination after earning Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild mentions, consults his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, to discuss the possibility of having sex for the first time. Father Brendan is an unusual but extremely compelling religious figure, struggling with his own concepts of sex outside marriage in this special case. Yet the film gets infinitely more interesting when Oscar nominee Helen Hunt first graces the screen, as sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene. When Mark refers to her as a prostitute, she quickly differentiates what she does as something entirely unique. When she and Mark start to bond, Cheryl reveals that, as her last name might indicate, her husband is Jewish, and she is in the process of converting. One memorable scene in the film shows Cheryl at a mikvah, explaining to the religious woman there that she is not uncomfortable being naked. Cohen-Greene is in fact a real person and an author herself, and did go through the conversion process. The fact that the film shows this mikvah scene and attributes positive religious values to a character type not typically imbued with such qualities is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see such a fascinating portrait of Judaism in a film where the protagonist belongs to another religion.
It’s unlikely that, come Oscar night, Hunt will be able to defeat Anne Hathaway for the Best Supporting Actress prize, but it’s easily feasible that either of the two documentaries mentioned above could win that award. In the coming weeks, I’ll provide an in-depth look at each of them, and stay tuned for other awards-related happenings!
January 7, 2013 | 2:05 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Thursday, and awards fanatics have the privilege to look forward to the Golden Globe Awards shortly after that, this Sunday at 5pm. While there are precious few Jewish themes among the films nominated, religion – in some form or another – plays a surprisingly strong part in a majority of them.
Christianity is all over Les Misérables, and it can be seen most in Jean Valjean’s transformation from convict to honest man. Touched by the generosity and forgiveness of a bishop, Valjean dedicates his life to God and becomes a positive contributor to society. The title character in Life of Pi follows multiple religions at once in an effort to love God, and even mentions that he lectures in Kabbalah, securing his thin connection to Judaism. Two Brits work closely with a Yemeni sheikh to transplant fly fishing to the Yemen in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a relationship that profoundly affects all parties. Even Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, chronicles of American conflicts with extremist Islam, portray a less evil and destructive vision of non-extremists, in the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper in the former and a practicing Muslim CIA official in the latter. The Sessions, which actually has some actionable Jewish content, is worthy of its own separate post after Oscar nominations are announced and its Jewish character is likely nominated.
Not all portraits of religion in Globe-nominated films are optimistic, however. Lincoln and Django Unchained are extraordinarily different films, yet their similar timelines (albeit fictional in the case of the latter) frame them within the contexts of white supremacist notions and Christian values of the era about God-given rights. The Master demonstrates the danger of a cult, following its shifty protagonist as he falls prey to one man pulling the strings and amassing a frightening number of followers to his cause.
A more creative interpretation of religion can be found in several other contenders. Silver Linings Playbook emphasizes positivity as a guiding force. Moonrise Kingdom sings about true love at a young age, which guides its pre-pubescent protagonists to each other against all odds. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel values serenity and relaxation, an appropriate reward for a long life spent working. Flight showcases Alcoholics Anonymous, focused on the presence of a higher power. The Impossible demonstrates the tremendous strength of family and hope in the most devastating of situations.
It’s rare to find such strong instances of religion present in every one of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s citations for Best Motion Picture and in a few of its other choices. Yet this year represents an instance where, Django Unchained aside, most of the films are more serious than usual. The comedies - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and Silver Linings Playbook - are not laugh-out-loud pictures; instead, more contemplative, light-hearted dramas. All but Quentin Tarantino’s excessive opus of violence in the drama category - Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty - along as nominated musical Les Misérables, represent formidable, long-term battles to achieve a monumental result. Compared with last year’s top category winners, The Artist and The Descendants, both strong films, of course, this year seems considerably more intense and thought-provoking.
It’s likely that Les Misérables will eclipse Silver Linings Playbook for the Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical trophy, following in the footsteps of Hollywood musical adaptations like Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, and Chicago this past decade. On the drama front, it’s a highly competitive race between Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. The films that will be crowned the best of 2012 on Sunday are indicative of a dramatic year in cinema, one that is sure to leave an impression and keep moviegoers thinking about its themes long after they have left the theater.