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MY FATHER MY LORD
Written and directed by David Volach. Hebrew title: Hofshat keitz. 74 minutes. In Hebrew and Yiddish, with English titles
With Assi Dayan, Sharon Hacohen-Bar, Ilan Griff
They say that sometimes, less is more. And sometimes, it's just less. David Volach's My Father My Lord is a case in point. The surprise winner of the Narrative Film Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last spring, it tells in loving detail the story of an ultra-Orthodox family beset by tragedy. But there's almost no plot, and the characters, although each has one personality trait, lack real personalities. The father is a stern adherent of strict religious observance, the mother is loving and the child is curious, but that's it. They're all a bit generic and seem to have been conceived in order to drive home one heavy-handed point: Overly strict religiosity kills the soul. No argument here, but a little complexity wouldn't hurt in getting the message across. Nor would a joke or two.
At first, a viewer might easily think the film is simply slow to get started. It opens with ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Eidelman (Assi Dayan) reading a page of a holy book and nearly crying, either out of joy or anguish. It's telling that after sitting through the entire film, I still didn't have a clue what emotion he was expressing during this scene.
And this isn't a criticism of Dayan's acting. He's thoroughly credible in the role. In fact, Dayan, a secular actor who has struggled with drug problems, has played so many Orthodox characters (and so convincingly) in recent years, he should be eligible for some kind of special rabbinical ordination. Here he portrays a rabbi who is revered by his students and family but is so rigid in his adherence to the law that he compromises his humanity.
The film's only real story is how his rigidity (or, some would say, his devotion) precipitates the tragedy, which comes as a surprise to the rabbi but not to anyone who has ever taken an English class in which the word "foreshadow" was used. He is adored by his wife, Esther (Sharon Hacohen-Bar), and his young son, Menahem (Ilan Griff, in an exceptionally natural and convincing performance). At home and in the Beit Midrash, his word is law and his family members are happy for any scrap of attention he can spare them. In an early scene, he summons his son to his study and his son goes eagerly, thinking that his father wants to tell him something. Instead, the father continues to study his holy books, barely acknowledging the boy with a glance, and eventually, the son falls asleep. We learn nothing of the wife, whose function is, apparently, to be an earth mother, giving the child the love and affection the father withholds or may not be capable of feeling. Her wise, loving smile begins to grate early on.
Why they have only one child in a community that takes very seriously the commandment to be fruitful and multiply is never explained or even referred to. The boy is dreamy and very attuned to his environment, wondering about questions that put him at odds with his father.
When a neighbor's dog shows great devotion to its elderly owner, he is intrigued and asks his father if dogs have souls. The father's reply is unequivocal: No. But the son continues to pay rapt attention to every bit of nature that finds its way into the crowded, dirty Jerusalem neighborhood in which they live, especially a dove that roosts on the windowsill at his yeshiva and tends to her young. The father, seeing the dove, sends it away and explains, in a convoluted piece of dialogue that lost me completely, that humans are commanded to send birds away from their nest. The son and every viewer are appalled by what seems a ridiculous and arbitrary act of cruelty.
You would think this scene would be enough to get the message across, but for it to be spelled out completely, the family has to go on vacation at the Dead Sea. There, in the midst of nature, as the boy communes with his surroundings and the father heedlessly continues to observe the letter of the law, tragedy strikes. As I watched the tragedy unfold slowly, I was nagged by several observations, most of which have to do with having some actual acquaintance with Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox residents.
First of all, the family seems so isolated. Even in a family with one child, wouldn't there be some contact with the extended family (as well as friends and neighbors)? Whenever I see ultra-Orthodox families on an outing, it's clear that there are aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, as well as the nuclear family. Perhaps if there were other characters along for the ride in this drama, the starkness of the message would be compromised.
The other observation has to do with the hushed silence in almost all the scenes. It wasn't clear to me exactly which neighborhood was shown in the film (it's probably meant to be Mea Shearim), but all ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods I've ever been to are terribly noisy, both indoors and out. Writer/director Volach, raised in an ultra-Orthodox family, should know this, but instead he made an artistic choice that compromises the authenticity of the lifestyle he depicts. The ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem in My Father My Lord bears more of a resemblance to the Bergmanesque ambience of Amos Gitai's Kadosh, a completely inauthentic film, than to any real religious neighborhood or home.
My guess is that it wowed them at Tribeca because the judges felt that there was something reverential about the whole enterprise, that it was edifying to see a movie about the ultra-Orthodox simply because it was about them. Variety praised the film's portrayal of "the sheer exoticism of a totally alien culture." Audiences in Israel are bound to feel a little differently, though, even (perhaps especially) Orthodox audiences.
When the culture isn't exotic or alien, when the characters could be your neighbors or friends, it needs more to work than My Father My Lord has to offer.