Category Archives: Religion

One and-a-half bar mitzvahs and a wedding: The Women’s Balcony (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 4, 2017)

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In his 2009 Guardian piece “Does Judaism discriminate against women?” Dan Rickman writes:

There is however, a deep conflict between Judaism and feminism which stretches from the public (in synagogue) to the private. For example, in all Orthodox synagogues men pray separately from women and in many women are relegated to an upstairs gallery. Gender hierarchies are entrenched in Jewish thought: a blessing orthodox Jewish men are required to say everyday thanks a God “who has not made me a woman”. […]

There are many couples where the husband is involved and the woman is estranged. What drives this is the dissonance between women’s lives in society at large where, at least in principle, all options are open to them, and their role in traditional Jewish life which is limited and constrained by laws developed by (male) rabbis.

Oy. So that begs an obvious question: Can you really be an Orthodox Jew and a feminist? Funnily enough, that is the name of a 2014 Telegraph article by Emma Barnett (an Orthodox Jew by upbringing and a feminist), who writes:

You see as a fully paid up feminist, I demand and expect total equality in my secular life and yet some would view what I accept as normal in my religious Jewish world, as anything but equal. Although believe me, no women in my personal Jewish life feel oppressed; if anything, they are in total control. […]

In the secular world, common sense must be the order of the day. It isn’t reasonable not to have women occupying the same roles as men and vice versa. But in a religious sphere, where faith is the binding force of a group of people, rationale has less sway or place. If you started applying logic to the beliefs held in most faiths, things would start to fall apart pretty quickly at the seams. […]

Male-led religions present a big dilemma to feminists in the modern world. And yes, on this topic, I am a full fat hypocrite. But as they say, faith begins often where logic ends.

This dilemma lies at the heart of a warm, witty and wise new Israeli dramedy called The Women’s Balcony, from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama.

The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. As the film opens, a small but lively and close-knit congregation, led by venerable Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) gather at their modest synagogue for a bar-mitzvah.

Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous celebration takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses mid-ceremony. Luckily, all survive, but sadly, the rabbi’s wife sustains serious injuries that require indefinite round-the-clock hospital care. The aging Rabbi Menashe, not in the best health himself, has a nervous breakdown.

This leaves the congregation with two major deficits; no place to worship until repairs can be facilitated, and no spiritual leader at the helm until the rabbi (hopefully) recovers from his debilitating mental trauma. A few days after the accident, several of the men from the congregation are discussing the future of the synagogue and decide to pray on it.

However, they realize that they are a few bodies short of a minyan (a quorum of 10), which they will need in order to conduct a service. They ask a young man who passes by.

As fate would have it, he happens to be a rabbi, who is more than happy to fetch some of his students and shore up the minyan. The men instantly take to the charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who quite quickly ingratiates himself as the “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly, perhaps, for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hastily remodeled synagogue eschews the open balcony model for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services.

The more the charming but duplicitous Rabbi David’s ultra-orthodox slip begins to show, the less enthralled are the women, who eventually find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. Still, they must step lightly; with marriages and long-time friendships on the rocks (much less the future of their once harmonious congregation) there’s much at stake.

This formidable coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts (Israeli comedian Orna Banai, in her first major screen role; popular Israeli singer Einat Sarouf, making her film debut; acclaimed Moroccan-born actress Evelin Hagoel; actress-comedian Yafit Asulin) who deliver a wonderful ensemble performance.

How this extended family resolves their fractious row is relayed with compassion and astute observation, steeped in what I once described in a review as “…a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother).” That said (if I may re-appropriate a classic advertising slogan) “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” or in this case, to love Ben-Shimon and Nehama’s real Jewish wryness.

Blu-ray reissue: The Loved One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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The Loved One – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

In 1965, this black comedy/social satire was billed as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” By today’s standards, it’s relatively tame (but still pretty sick). Robert Morse plays a befuddled Englishman struggling to process the madness of southern California, where he has come for an extended visit at the invitation of his uncle (Sir John Gielgud) who works for a Hollywood studio.

Along the way, he falls in love with a beautiful but mentally unstable mortuary cosmetician (Anjanette Comer), gets a job at a pet cemetery, and basically reacts to all the various whack-jobs he encounters. The wildly eclectic cast includes Jonathan Winters (in three roles), Robert Morley, Roddy McDowell, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Liberace, Paul Williams and Rod Steiger (as Mr. Joyboy!). Tony Richardson directed; the screenplay was adapted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood from Evelyn Waugh’s novel. No extras on this edition, but the high-definition transfer is good.

Blu-ray reissue: Multiple Maniacs ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Multiple Maniacs – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Warning: This 1970 trash classic from czar of bad taste John Waters is definitely not for the pious, easily offended or the faint of heart. A long out-of-print VHS edition aside, it has been conspicuously absent from home video…until now. Thank (or blame) The Criterion Collection, who have meticulously restored the film back to all of its original B&W 16mm glory (well, almost…there’s grumbling from purists about the “new” music soundtrack, reportedly precipitated by the prohibitive costs of securing music rights for some of the tracks that were “borrowed” by Waters for his original cut).

The one and only Divine heads the cast who became Waters’ faithful “Dreamland” repertory (Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary, etc.) in a tale of mayhem, filth and blasphemy too shocking to discuss in mixed company (you’ll never see a Passion Play the same way).

Watching this the other day for the first time in several decades, I was suddenly struck by the similarities with the contemporaneous films of Rainier Werner Fassbinder (Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague in particular). Once you get past its inherent shock value, Multiple Maniacs is very much an American art film. Extras include a typically hilarious commentary track by Waters.

Nasty habits: The Little Hours **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 8, 2017)

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So when was the last time you saw a “ribald romp” at the multiplex? For that matter, when’s the last time you can even remember reading a film review that used descriptive phrases like “ribald romp”? How about “bawdy period piece”? Or “saucy yarn” (my favorite). I’m sure that readers of a certain age remember the cheekiest bodice-ripper of them all, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) which ignited a slew of imitators like The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. Lock Up Your Daughters, Joseph Andrews, et.al.

A close cousin is the costume spoof; beginning with The Court Jester (1955), which was the antecedent to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. While all four films are genre parodies, the latter three are products of a more modern post-ironic sensibility (in contrast to The Court Jester, which is simply goofy fun). Which brings us to the age of the meta-ironic costume spoof, perhaps best represened by the wonderfully demented Comedy Central series Another Period (a clever mashup of Keeping Up With The Kardashians with Downton Abbey).

Fans of Another Period will likely be the most receptive audience for Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, an irreverent, somewhat uneven, and occasionally hilarious reworking of The Decameron. For those unfamiliar, The Decameron (as I just learned on Wiki, for I am a Philistine), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, structured as a frame story containing 100 tales. Obviously, all 100 tales are not contained within the film’s 90-minute frame (it would pose an interesting challenge).

So for out of what one assumes to be sheer practicality, Baena narrows it down to the one about the horny young nuns (those easily offended should probably leave the room now). Anyway, this bawdy period piece is a saucy yarn concerning three young nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci) who deal with their raging hormones and the crushing boredom of covenant life by taking out their frustrations on the hapless groundskeeper. “Why are you looking at us, you fucking pervert?” they scream at him (as medieval nuns do). One day, they gang up and poke him with sticks, sending him fleeing.

The resident Father (John C. Reilly) hires a hunky replacement (Dave Franco), a servant seeking asylum after getting caught in flagrante delicto with his lord’s lady. The Father advises the servant that it would be best if he posed as a deaf-mute (so as not to tempt the nuns into breaking their vows of chastity). You know where this story is heading, right?

What ensues is a cross between The Trouble With Angels with, erm, Ken Russell’s The Devils. The film is far from a classic, but the cast (also including Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman and Paul Reiser) is fun, and Quyen Tran’s cinematography is lush. So if you seek asylum from the summer movie onslaught of pirates, comic book characters and aliens, the solution is obvious: get thee to a nunnery!

# # #

Alas, they don’t make perfect period romps like this one anymore:

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

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Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SIFF 2017: White Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Director Deepak Rauniyar uses the family row that ensues when a Maoist rebel returns to his isolated mountain village for his Royalist father’s funeral as an allegory for the political woes that have divided and ravaged his home country of Nepal. Naturalistic performances and rugged location shooting greatly enhance a story that beautifully illustrates how a country’s people, like members of an estranged family, must strive to rediscover common ground before meaningful healing can begin.

Original sin: The Student **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 6, 2017)

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In my 2008 review of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, I wrote:

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself.

Funnily enough, this is the conundrum at the heart of Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov’s somber drama The Student. In this particular narrative, you could say that “fundamentalist belief” is a high schooler named Venya (Pyoter Skvorstov), and “logic” is his biology teacher (Lidiya Tkacheva). In fact, nearly every character in this stagey piece walks around with “I am a metaphor!” tattooed on their forehead; I was not surprised when credits revealed it was adapted from a play (by Marius von Mayenburg).

Venya is a brooding fellow who skulks about the halls, avoiding eye contact with any of his fellow students. He appears taciturn as well; that is, until he refuses to participate in co-ed swimming for P.E., citing it goes against his religion. His mother (Yuliya Aug) is called in for a conference, and it’s clear that she has become exasperated with her son’s obstinate behavior as of late; fueled by his inexplicably sudden fealty to biblical literalism.

The school’s deeply religious principal is happy to accommodate Venya’s request for a deferral. This emboldens the young man to become ever more vocal and disruptive, to the particular chagrin of his free-spirited biology teacher, who finds herself more and more on the defensive as Venya repeatedly hijacks her normally democratic class discussions.

Venya’s non-stop sermonizing and self-righteous scolding is off-putting to classmates, with the exception of shy and soft-spoken Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Grigoriy is an outsider himself; mostly due to feeling self-conscious about a pronounced limp, which makes him a frequent target for bullying. Venya makes an attempt to “heal” Grigoriy, which fails. Undeterred, Grigoriy offers to become his “first disciple”. Grigoriy’s devotion is not necessarily motivated by spirituality, leading to fateful misinterpretations.

I was reminded of John Huston’s 1979 comedy-drama Wise Blood and Peter Medak’s 1972 satire The Ruling Class; although it lacks the black humor of the former and irony of the latter. What it does have is intensity; perhaps a bit too much, as it threatens at times to collapse under the weighty mantle of its protagonist’s martyr complex. Still…its central message rings clear and true: a blind devotion to fundamentalism rarely ends well.

 

SJFF 2017: Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This bittersweet yet life-affirming documentary, which recalls the PBS series An American Family, takes an intimate look at the travails of a 40 year-old Israeli man named Saar, who has lived a happy and fulfilling life being out and proud in London, despite the fact that his move was precipitated by getting barred from the  kibbutz where he grew up. However, he is currently weathering a midlife crisis, with an added poignancy: he is HIV-positive and yearns to meaningfully reconnect with his estranged family in Israel, who seem unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their familial love for Saar with their deeply held religious fundamentalist tenets regarding homosexuality. Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann were given extraordinary access to Saar and his family, resulting in something rarely experienced at the movies anymore-real and heartbreaking emotional honesty, handled with great sensitivity and compassion.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SIFF 2015: Challat of Tunis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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While this qualifies as a “mockumentary”, there’s nothing “ha-ha” funny about it. That is, unless you consider sexual violence an amusing subject… which it decidedly is not, although (sadly) it is a global scourge that knows no borders. This is precisely the point that writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania is (bravely) making in her film, which is a scathing feminist sendup of the systemic sexism that permeates not only her native Tunisia, but Arab culture (and the Earth). The “Challat” refers to a motorbike-borne, self-anointed crusader who slashes the buttocks of women who dress “immodestly”. As the film opens, a decade has passed since this twisted customer has victimized anyone. An investigative journalist (played by the director) is trying to track him down, so she can get inside his head to see what makes such an odious individual tick. A young man comes forth, who may or may not be the elusive “Challat”. She calls his bluff, and things get interesting. Thought-provoking, yet also disheartening when you contemplate the distressing universality of the misogynist credo: “She was asking for it.”

SIFF 2015: Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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French filmmaker Stephanie Valloatto’s globetrotting documentary profiles a dozen men and women who make their living drawing funny pictures about current events. I know what you’re thinking…beats digging ditches, right? Well, that depends. Some of these political cartoonists ply their trade under regimes that could be digging a “special” ditch, reserved just for them (if you know what I’m saying). The film can be confusing; in her attempt to give all 12 subjects equal face time, Valloatto’s frequent cross-cutting can make you lose track of which country you’re in (it’s mostly interior shots). That aside, she gets to the heart of what democracy is all about: speaking truth to power. It’s also timely; in one scene, an interviewee says, “Like a schoolchild, I told myself: I shouldn’t draw Muhammad.” Then, holding up a sketch of you-know-who, he concludes: “Drawing is the correct answer to the forbidden.”