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.
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