Winner of Best Film at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, writer-director David Volach elegantly shot and scored debut is a bold, intimate look at Israel's extremely insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish, or "Haredic," community, largely seen through the eyes of an intransigent rabbi's young son.
Little Menahem Eidelman (Ilan Griff) has learned a lot from his father, Rabbi Abraham Eidelman (the great Assi Dayan), a strict authoritarian who nevertheless obviously loves his son and cares deeply about his spiritual education. Abraham has taught Menahem all the correct prayers and blessings, and the proper use of the sacred tefalim that are wrapped around the arms and head. Accompanying his father the synagogue where he and other rabbinical scholars study the Torah, glossing the Written Law with their own interpretations, Menahem has also learned the difference between "general providence" through which God cares for lesser creatures not individuals, but species subject to natural cycles of life and death, and "personal providence," that kind of individual, VIP attention which the Almighty reserves for the "righteous" alone. And by "righteous," Rabbi Edelmen means Jews who observe the Torah and strictly obey its commandments. Everyone and everything else, Abraham contends, simply exist for the benefit of the righteous. Menahem is disturbed when his father tells him that animals have no soul, will or commandments, and therefore no heaven to go to, and watching the care with which a mother dove tends to her nesting chicks on the window ledge at his Torah school, and the heartbreaking devotion a pet dog shows to its dying owner as she's loaded into an ambulance, makes young Menahem wonder. His mother, Esther (Sharon Hachochen Barr), is as tender as her husband is authoritative, but keeps her true feelings about such matters to herself. She does what she can to soften her husband's didacticism and quietly dotes on her son, indulging his excitement over an upcoming family trip to the shores of the Dead Sea. There, an unexpected tragedy occurs that would seem to defy all explanation, and cause both parents to question the nature of their special providence.
The world of the ultra-Orthodox Jews -- a world quite different from that of secular Judaism -- is one Volach knows quite well: He and his 19 brothers and sisters were born raised within Jerusalem's Haredic community. And aside from Amos Gitai's KADOSH and the unusual 2004 comedy USHPIZIN, it's a world that has rarely been seen portrayed on film. Some customs and traditions may seem bizarre, even outrageous -- the commandment that requires the sending a mother bird away from her nest, or the prohibition against women speaking aloud in her own bedroom -- and Volach has no intention of explaining anything: A palpable anger hangs over the film, particularly in its outcome. But the real target isn't the Torah or its followers, but the kind of unquestioning and inevitable distortion that comes from endless interpretation that twists logic and leads Abraham to conclude "Mercifulness that contradicts the Torah is sometimes an evil instinct disguised as a good one," even as experience would teach him otherwise.
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