'Rough Diamonds': Israeli-Belgian Netflix series with unclear identity - review

The new Netflix series presents two storylines. One is a wonderful look at an ultra-Orthodox family, the other is superficial and ridiculous.

The Netflix logo is seen on their office in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US July 16, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON/FILE PHOTO)
The Netflix logo is seen on their office in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US July 16, 2018.

Jewish tradition forbids shatnez, the prohibition against wearing a garment with wool and linen woven together. In TV parallel to this, a crude fusion of a family drama and a mafia series can also result in a problematic hybrid. 

Recently, the show Rough Diamonds hit Netflix – an intriguing joint Belgian-Israeli production produced by Keshet International for Netflix.

Rotem Shamir and Yuval Yefet, who together created The Policemen and worked together on Fauda, are the creators, but aside from them, most of the cast is Belgian and the show manages to juggle a large number of languages: Belgian, French, Yiddish and English.

A look at life in ultra-Orthodox communities

It seems that after the international success of Shtisel and The Rebel, Netflix looked for more shows that could give international audiences a glimpse into life in ultra-Orthodox communities

Rough Diamonds tries to do exactly that, but in an even more specific way: It centers on the old and large Jewish community in Antwerp, Belgium, which traditionally specialized in the diamond industry. 

 Smartphone with Netflix logo is seen in front of a stock graph in this illustration taken April 19, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION) Smartphone with Netflix logo is seen in front of a stock graph in this illustration taken April 19, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

Even before we dive into it, it can be said that Rough Diamonds is very similar  – perhaps too much so – to the name its creators gave it. It has the rawness of a diamond, and if you clean it of all the sand and dirt left after mining, you can find something of value in it. 

The plot of Rough Diamonds follows the Wolfson family, one of the most powerful families in the Antwerp Jewish community and the owner of the Wolfson Diamonds company that sells rough diamonds. When the youngest son in the family, Yanki (Vincent Van Sande), takes his own life due to what appears to be financial complications, their lives all spin out of control.

Noah (Kevin Janssens), the estranged brother who left the ultra-Orthodox community and religious lifestyle 15 years ago to live in London, returns to Antwerp with his son, Tommy (Casper Knopf) to attend the funeral but is forced to stay to try and save the family business. 

The parents, Ezra (Dudu Fisher) and Sarah (Yona Elian), have difficulty accepting Noah and Tommy, as do the siblings Eli and Adna, but Noah's connections to the world outside the ultra-Orthodox community and his willingness to take unorthodox approaches to find solutions to the family's troubles see him brought back into the fold.

Rough Diamonds constantly switches between the life Noah left in Antwerp and the one he currently leads in London. He rediscovers his love for Yanki's widow, Gila (Marie Vinck), who was his partner before he went off the derech, but also has to deal with the constant pressure from his mother-in-law Kerra (Tine Joustra), a crime lord not afraid to use her grandson as a bargaining chip.

At the same time, the Wolfson family is forced to roll up its sleeves and take on some unusual partnerships to save the family business. 

Noah becomes a key player in the rivalry between Eli (Robbie Cleren) and Adina (Ini Massez), which is later joined by a cousin named Benny.

Adding to all of this is a local police officer named Jo (Els Dottermans), who is trying to find a link between Wolfson Diamonds and an investigation she is carrying out against the Albanian mafia.

This all results in a large number of plot lines that don't necessarily fit together successfully. 

The main problem with Rough Diamonds

The main problem of Rough Diamonds is the uneven level of its two main plot lines. While the more "stealthy" plot, dealing with the Wolfsons' family and community dramas, manages to stay interesting the whole time, everything related to Kerra, Jo and the Albanian mafia feels clumsy and sloppily written.

The challenge Shamir and Yefet took on to combine a drama about a family dealing with loss and a crime series that draws quite a bit of inspiration from Scandinavian noir (its great cinematography is often reminiscent of masterpiece series like The Bridge and The Killing) is particularly complex and doesn't exactly work. 

Probably out of a desire to make Antwerp's rather closed ultra-Orthodox community accessible to non-Jewish audiences as well, the creators take the time to flesh out the characters of the Wolfson family, which helps us bond with them. We get to know Adina, Eli, Gila and Sarah in depth and understand their desires and concerns. 

By contrast, all characters outside the family, especially Kerra who is supposed to be the main antagonist, receive shockingly superficial treatment, which simply eliminates any interest around the plot line. 

For a moment, it seems that even the creators weren't sure what they wanted Rough Diamonds to be. it goes back and forth with deep gaps in the writing of the various storylines. While the Wolfson plots were written with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the characters, all the other scenes feel crude and almost arbitrary. 

For example, a conversation between Jo and her father where he warns her not to investigate Jews because they don't inform on each other because of their principles and don't talk to secular authorities. This is a very superficial view. 

This is similar to the Albanian mafia, which, despite being talked about from the very first episode, remains ethereal and not threatening at all. 

Or Kerra, who, despite a good performance by Joustra, amounts to a character who jumps on screen every few minutes and shouts "Hey, watch out for me! I'm still here!"

These scenes interfere with beautiful moments from the ultra-Orthodox community, like Gila's meetings with the matchmaker Tovah or the hasty escape to the cinema or Noah and Gila sharing an impromptu date on the roof.

What makes Rough Diamonds worth watching

What makes Rough Diamonds a series worth watching is the cast's excellent acting. A lot of credit goes to Shamir, who directed some especially moving scenes. 

The mostly European cast does such an amazing job that is possible to believe that the actors who play Adina, Eli and Gila are actually acquainted with the ultra-Orthodox community.

This is without detracting from Fisher and Elian, who both bring restrained and powerful Drama. This is especially true for Elian, who is hard to take your eyes off every time she appears on the screen.

The best moments in the series focus on the relationship between Noah and Gila. He finds he still has a measure of longing for the life he left behind and she, facing a match with another man, thinks about the life she could have led if she had gone off the derech.

These, along with the inheritance struggle between members of the Wolfson family – the Ashkenazi haredi Jewish version of Succession – and the difficulty in accepting their secular and gentile grandson are the moments that justify watching Rough Diamonds.