To Dust


“It could be worse. It could be raining!”

(2018) Dramedy (Good Deed) Gėza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Bern Cohen, Ben Hammer, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno, Ziv Zaifman, Leanne Michelle Watson, Jill Marie Lawrence, Larry Owens, Isabelle Phillips, Marceline Hugot, Natalie Carter, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Joseph Siprut, Linda Frieser, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jaclyn S. Powell, Sarah Jes Austell. Directed by Shawn Snyder

 

In life, death is certain but growth is optional. The wisdom of a Star Trek movie “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life” is lost on most of us. We deal with death by ignoring it.

Shmuel (Röhrig) can’t ignore it. His beloved wife has just passed from cancer and it has thrown him for a loop. A cantor in the Hassidic Jewish faith, he is having a hard time dealing with it – he can’t even tear his coat properly until his mother supplies him with a tiny pair of scissors. Shmuel is nothing if not tied to his faith but he begins to have nightmares of his wife’s body decomposing. Troubled, he seeks the advice of his rabbi (Hammer) but is left unsatisfied. He needs to know precisely what is happening to his wife’s body. He has questions: is her soul suffering as her body decays? He needs to know.

His quest takes him beyond the parameters of his faith and to a scientist. Well, to a guy who teaches science at the local community college: Albert (Broderick). Albert is going through a rough emotional time of his own, having just been divorced. At first, he finds Shmuel’s persistence annoying – anybody would. Shmuel has the dogged determination of a mule trying to get that carrot. Eventually though Albert warms to the scientific aspect of the question and the two begin to delve into “experiments” that are started by an innocent remark on Albert’s part that Shmuel takes literally and eventually involves dead pigs, kidnapped pigs named Harold, road trips and body farms.

This movie is plenty quirky and mostly in an endearing way. Death and the mechanics of bodily corruption are not things we are geared to talk about much as a society. Nobody wants to know about the bacterial breakdown of our mortal remains; nobody wants to hear about maggot infestations and what happens to our skin, our eyes and our brains. It’s a vaguely disturbing subject but it is tackled with surprising compassion here.

It helps having a pair of charismatic leads. Broderick is perfectly cast here to the point where I can’t imagine any other actor playing this role. Albert is a bit of a kvetch in many regards and Broderick excels at those kinds of roles. Albert copes with his grief by smoking a lot of dope and listening to Jethro Tull – in other words, reverting back to his high school years in which he likely smoked a lot of dope and listened to a lot of Tull. I give the movie a lot of cultural points, by the way, for including Tull on the soundtrack. Rock on!

Röhrig, who some might remember from a much different movie called Son of Saul, plays a man who is consumed by his obsession to the point that he can’t see that his sons are also grieving and need him more than ever. His behavior is so odd that the two believe he has been possessed by a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish demon, and are researching the prospect on their own. The problem here is that often we don’t get a sense of Shmuel’s actual grief, the pain of losing someone so beloved although I will give you that maybe his obsessions with the body’s breakdown is his way of dealing with it. We all grieve in our own ways.

I don’t know enough about the Hassidic culture to determine whether or not the production was accurate on their rituals or lifestyle. Shmuel lives in an upstate New York townhouse, drives a station wagon and occasionally curses like a sailor. His sons are conversant with the Internet and computers. This is a different portrayal of their culture than I think most of us are used to.

Death isn’t an easy subject to tackle and our own mortality and the end disposition of our remains may be a little bit too uncomfortable a subject for some. The filmmakers are to be commended for taking it on and handling it in a mostly sensitive way – there is a lot of humor involved here but also a lot of respect for the subject. I’m not saying that this should be considered a primer in grief in any way, shape or form but any movie that allows us to discuss something so basic but so disconcerting deserves praise in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is quirky in an endearing way. Broderick is solid as usual
REASONS TO AVOID: Röhrig is a bit too laconic at times. The subject matter may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images of corpses, some brief nudity, drug use and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set at the community college were filmed at the City University of New York’s Staten Island campus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Everybody Knows

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The Wedding Plan (Laavor et hakir)


Here comes the bride!

(2016) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Noa Koler, Dafi Alferon, Oded Leopold, Ronny Merhavi, Udi Persi, Jonathan Rozen, Irit Sheleg, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi, Odelia Moreh-Matalon, Erez Drigues. Directed by Rama Burshtein

 

The desire to find the person to love, cherish and spend the rest of our lives with is pretty much endemic to every culture but in some ways, the Orthodox Jewish community puts a little extra emphasis on it. Single women of a certain age are subtly looked down upon as if there is something defective about them.

Michal (Koler) is a 32-year-old convert to the Breslov sect of Hassidic Judaism. She is a veteran of the dating scene in Israel and has the emotional scars to prove it. Finally, though, it seems like she’s found the man of her dreams – Gidi (Drigues). Michal has arranged to rent the catering hall of Shimi (Tamam) and they are sampling some of the food that is offered for various wedding parties when Gidi drops a bombshell; he doesn’t love her.

Although the wedding is off, Michal decides to keep the booking at the catering hall for the eighth night of Hanukkah. She’s tired of the searing looks that she gets from married women bringing their children to the mobile petting zoo she runs (I didn’t know that was a thing) and the nagging of her mother (Sheleg). She wants to settle down and be with someone she can share the rest of her life with and if God could part the Red Sea, He could find her a husband.

But she figured God helps those who helps themselves so she sets herself up a matchmaker who sets her up on dates with Hassidic men, each less suitable than the last. She decides to take a break to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (founder of her particular sect)  in the Ukraine and overcome with emotion, prostrates herself on the grave. She is comforted by Yoss (Zehavi), an Israeli indie rock singer who sets many a female heart to fluttering. Although she is star-struck, she strikes up a relationship with the man.

As the days start to dwindle towards Hanukkah, Michal continues to prepare for her wedding even though those around her are beginning to have their doubts. Shimi, who is in a marriage that has slowly begun to implode, offers what support he can and even though her deadline is approaching with her no closer to finding a groom than she was when Gidi said “I don’t,” her faith remains steadfast.

This is a movie that takes Hollywood romantic comedy conventions and turns them inside out while in some ways, remaining true to the gist of them – for example, most rom-com junkies will figure out the ending well in advance of the end credits. Still, world movie enthusiasts will appreciate the slice of like look at Israeli Hassidic culture, a world not often glimpsed even in Israeli cinema.

Koler is an engaging performer and she gives Michal just enough personality to give us a rooting interest. Michal is emotional almost to the point of hysteria in places and she spends a good deal of the movie crying. Her decisions don’t always make logical sense but she is always true to her emotional framework. Some will see this as misogynistic in the sense that the view of women is that their place in life is to be married to a husband who has essential control of the relationship but at the same time Michal is a fairly independent sort who seems to be able to take care of herself pretty well without a husband. One wonders if Burshtein who is also Hassidic is making a sly-handed comment on the somewhat archaic view of the role of women within the Hassidic community.

Like many rom-coms, the premise is unrealistic in many ways; while Michal has a great deal of faith, she also seems logical enough to understand that faith alone isn’t going to cut it. And yes, while she does take steps to find herself a groom, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between her religious faith and her independence. I’m not saying that independent women can’t be religious, only that the independent women I know tend to be practical as well and putting one’s faith in God in this manner doesn’t seem terribly practical. I honestly think this is more a commentary on how unmarried women are looked at in the Hassidic faith rather than a primer on what to do to find a husband.

In any case, I suspect that those who love romantic comedies are going to enjoy this, even though it is less a comedy than a slice of life. Those who enjoy exploring different cultures through the movies will really enjoy this. Fans of Israeli cinema will also enjoy this a great deal. Those who don’t like any of those things will likely not find much to like here, although if they are more adventurous souls who like to see movies that don’t necessarily have superheroes, aliens or car chases in them might well be pleasantly surprised.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives us some insight into the orthodox Jewish culture in Israel. American rom-com conventions are given an Israeli twist here.
REASONS TO STAY: This is somewhat unrealistic. The film is about 20 minutes too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here are of an adult nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Koler and Tamam both appeared on the Israeli television show Srugim as former spouses.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 29 Dresses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Letters from Baghdad