Movie Review: Off the Jewish bookshelf

King of Beggars, while being a noble enterprise, won't satisfy moviegoers.

September 16, 2007 08:43
3 minute read.
Movie Review: Off the Jewish bookshelf

king of beggars 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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King of Beggars ** Written and directed by Uri Paster. Hebrew title: Melech Shel Kabzanim. 98 minutes. Hebrew and Russian, Hebrew titles. Sometimes the best thing you can say about a movie is that it makes you want to read the book, and that's the case with King of Beggars. Based on a novel by Mendele Mocher Sforim, Fishke the Lame, it tells the story of a tough group of Jewish beggars in the 16th century who were called on by the Russians to help fight the Poles in exchange for land and rights. It's an interesting story, but this earnest, stilted adaptation doesn't bring it to life. It suffers from the same weaknesses that plague many English-language historical dramas, such as battle scenes where the violence alternates between being more graphic than necessary to being obviously fake; characters who seem more like symbols than people; overly theatrical dialogue and oddly inappropriate casting. The most egregious example of this casting is Shahar Sorek in the lead. He's supposed to be a cripple and an outcast, but the young actor is gorgeous, buff and articulate. He walks with a limp, but even that calls attention to just how muscular his legs are. And his wild hair, which blows around in the fight scenes, kept making me think of Bob Marley in concert. This guy's no outcast; he has "charismatic leader" written all over him. However, it takes the rest of the characters a while to recognize Fishke's leadership potential. At first, he toils without complaint for families in the shtetl, where he lives and works as an attendant at the men's mikveh, and develops his biceps flicking switches on the men's backs. Like everyone else, he does his best to survive the frequent pogroms. In order to stop these pogroms, some of the superstitious shtetl inhabitants decide to marry him off to Basya, a blind woman, in a cemetery at midnight, which they believe will ward off bad luck. Ruby Porat Shoval (the Moroccan mother in Turn Left at the End of the World) plays the blind woman - actually a con artist in league with the wily beggar Feyvush (Amos Lavi) and his cronies, who live in the woods and prey on local Jews. When Basya runs away after the wedding, the naïve and pious Fishke follows her into the woods to try to convince her to really live with him. Refusing to abandon her, he stays with the gang, although he convinces them to steal from Russians rather than Jews. Like Don Corleone, he has his standards; when they rob a church, he won't let them steal the priest's crucifix, which convinces the old man he is Jesus. Soon, he has replaced Feyvush as the leader, and is in love with the beautiful Bella (Gili Saar, who looks like a model and seems to have mysterious access to conditioner and a blow dryer). The gang has one Russian member, Zissrel (Gediminas Storpistis), and eventually he and Fishke are recruited to fight for the Czar against the Poles. Fishke agrees, but only because they are promised their own land and freedom. It all plays out in a way that won't surprise anyone with the slightest knowledge of Jewish history. There are many stirring speeches in the second half about Jews' need to defend themselves, but they don't have the impact they would if the movie were more engrossing. About halfway through, I realized that the dialogue was written in that highly formal speech people always use in period movies when they want to portray gravitas. In Hollywood historical dramas they all speak English, of course, but here it's Hebrew rather than Yiddish. Whatever the language, they all employ that stilted syntax I'll call "Yoda-speak." For example, a character says, "Life is short, it is." You get the idea. The actors are good and Shahar Sorek, miscast though he may be, is at least plausible as someone who could rally the troops. If it weren't for the violence and nudity, King of Beggars could be a good movie for students of Mendele Mocher Sforim. But King of Beggars, while a noble enterprise, won't satisfy moviegoers - except maybe for those familiar with the book who will want to critique this adaptation.

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