A moving ride

The film ‘Driver’ is a quietly moving story of a man who lives on the margins of the ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak.

By
June 28, 2018 08:04
3 minute read.
The film ‘Driver’ is a quietly moving story of a man who lives on the margins of Bnei Brak

The film ‘Driver’ is a quietly moving story of a man who lives on the margins of the ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak. (photo credit: OHAD ROMANO)

 
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Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and Yehonatan Indursky’s Driver plays like an illustration of that line. It tells the quietly moving story of a man, Nahman Ruzumni (Moshe Folkenflik), who lives on the margins of the ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak and immerses himself in stories – his own and others’. He certainly hasn’t read Didion, but he seems to live by another famous maxim, George Costanza’s (the character Jason Alexander played on Seinfeld) saying, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Working as a driver who takes people to beg for money from the wealthy, he lives by a notebook with the marks’ names, addresses and important information about each of them (i.e., that one man is childless). But he is much more than a driver. He also makes the connections and coaches his passengers in how to voice their appeals. He structures their pitches for them, teaching them how to turn their plea into a story.

His pitches are always better and more animated than theirs, and he has a gift for getting people to share their lives with him. Sometimes he even calls a public telephone, just to hear what passersby will have to say. And he gets his buddies from the cafeteria where he hangs out to tell their own stories, while he critiques their get-rich-quick schemes. The best one: renting a truck when it snows in Jerusalem and bringing back snow to Bnei Brak, where they will charge people to play in it.

His wife has left, and at first, it isn’t clear why. He lives with his young daughter, Chani (Manuel Elkaslassy Vardi), but leaves her alone every night while he shuttles supplicants around the city. The movie, which starts out slow and atmospheric, but gradually picks up steam, really gets going when he takes his daughter with him on his nocturnal journey. He shows her, with some pride, how he is able to con his way through life. They eat their meals at weddings and shivas, where he pretends to know the celebrants or the bereaved, and Ruzumni has such assurance that no one questions their presence.

Driver is a complex and intelligent exploration of how this man both succeeds and fails at conning himself, and tells this story through his relationship with the one person he can’t con, Chani.

As much as I enjoyed their scenes together, I wished there could have been more of them. Some of the scenes of Ruzumni coaching the schnorrers become repetitive, while those with his daughter shine.

Driver shies away from the seamier side of night life, and at times it seems almost sanitized. There is no gambling or prostitution in this world, or any other kind of crime. It’s as if it were all happening in a fable. That’s a choice that the director has made, but at times I longed for the story to get grittier, or at least to reveal that Ruzumni had a girlfriend. But this isn’t that kind of movie.

The film is a great showcase for Folkenflik and Vardi, both of whom give wonderful performances, and they are particularly good in their scenes together.

Expectations were high for this first feature by Indursky, who created the television series Shtisel. In addition to Shtisel, he directed the excellent documentary Ponevezh Time, an insider’s glimpse at the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world, and The Cantor and the Sea, a beautifully done short film.

Driver doesn’t disappoint, although those used to the bustle of an episode of Shtisel may find Driver slow going, especially in the beginning. But those with patience will find that Driver is a ride worth taking.

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