THY FATHER’S CHAIR – movie review

THY FATHER’S CHAIR

No Permits Produktions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Àlex Lora, Antonio Tibaldi,
Cast:  Abraham, Shraga, Hanan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/23/18
Opens: In Theaters Oct. 13, 2017. Available on VOD March 30, 2018.

When you really dislike a film, perhaps the worst insult you can throw its way is that “it’s like watching paint dry.”  How about a film that’s about a  crew’s cleaning out a filthy house in Brooklyn?  It’s tempting to say the same, but Spaniard Àlex Lora and Australian Antonio Tibali deliver a documentary that at first appears like an instructional film for house cleaning trainees.  However given the rich conversations that they evoke while at the same time avoiding interviews, often the worst part of documentaries, they give us a rich, fly-on-the-wall look at two brothers, Abraham and Shraga, who worship in a Hasidic synagogue though not quite Haredim themselves.  Whether we come out of the brief seventy-five minutes understanding why this pair have filled their inherited home with the detritus of years is debatable.  I’m guessing that since their mom and dad died, they did not want to lose memories of their beloved parents.  This may explain why they kept the books intact, though some were not picked up in years (a set was upside down).  But why keep stuff that they picked up during the past months and years including trash bags from the supermarket, bedbug-infested mattresses, crumbling newspapers, and sour milk, plus some strange mixture in a pot, all of which smelled to high heaven (perhaps not the best word to describe it) as did their rooms?

In fact the twins, especially the more highlighted Abraham (two minutes younger than Shraga), call a professional clean-up crew when their upstairs tenants threaten a rent strike, complaining about the stench and maybe about the pereginating roaches that they would inevitably inherit if they had not already been so visited.  Like the stereotypical little old ladies who fill their homes with cats, Abraham and Shraga have the neshama to open their abode to the lucky felines, who did not seem to mind the filth and stench at all.  In fact in the movie’s most ironic scene, one of the nameless kitties spends her entire screen time cleaning herself on one of the several mattresses that the brothers had collected.

Abraham sports a huge gray beard and speaks English throughout without a trace of a Yiddish accent (there’s a touch of Brooklynese in some of the words, though), even chatting with his brother in English.  He is of course fluent in Hebrew, delivering an all-too-brief, mellifluous concert from a Jewish scroll.  Yet while Hanan, the Israeli head of the cleaning agency, professes his atheism, he is probably be surprised that Abraham, with all the trapping of Orthodoxy, labeled himself agnostic.  He uses the word “God” two or three times, a practice considered taboo outside the synagogue by Orthodox Jews, who refer to the Deity instead as “Hashem” or “Adoshem.”

You of course know the directors from their movie “Godka Circa,” a ten-minute look at one Alifa, who looks up at the Somai sky, contemplating her life as a shepherdess, and knowing that some time soon, her life will change.  The theme is obviously present in “Thy Father’s Chair,” since the brothers are about to embark on a new phase of their lives.

Hanan, who invades the house, finding the toilet packed with schmutz (probably not kept so in remembrance of the occupants’ parents), works with an a group of understanding Black employees, who take a week, maybe more, turning out a spacious abode that portends a new beginning for the brothers.  Or does it?

Unrated.  75 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

THE WOMEN’S BALCONY – movie review

  • THE WOMEN’S BALCONY (Ismach Hatani)

    Menemsha Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Emil Ben-Shimon
    Written by: Shlomit Nehama
    Cast: Orna Banai, Itzik Cohen, Einat Sarouf, Igal Naor, Evelin Hagoel, Aviv Alush
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/17
    Opens: May 26 at New York’s Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza

    When a non-Jewish friend asked me about the differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism, I quoted shtick from David Minkoff’s 2015 book “Oy!”

    In an Orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant.
    In a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant.
    In a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.

    Yes, Jews, like those of other religions, have group differences in their beliefs.  What’s more, even Orthodox Jews are divided regarding the strictness of their ideas, and what’s more Haredi Jews are split according to sects, namely Lubavitchers who believe in spreading the word to Jews who are not Haredi, and Satmar Haredim who do not.  Take the idea of a woman’s place:  should women have equal rights, sitting side by side in synagogues with men, or should they take the seats in the balconies of the shuls?  But one thing is clear enough in Emil Ben-Shimon’s comedy, “The Women’s Balcony,” and that is that while there are slight divisions within the womenfolk in a community in and about Jerusalem’s mea shearim district, none of the females even raised the issue that women should sit anywhere for services but in a balcony.

    “The Women’s Balcony” is happily not like those endless sitcoms and afternoon TV shows that require a laugh a minute.  The overall idea is humorous but the subject is religio-political, and with some seriousness.  The plot kicks off when during a Bar Mitzvah celebration, the balcony on the modest synagogue collapses, seriously injuring the wife of Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar).  As a result the rabbi himself has a psychotic break from reality, at which point there emerges a young, handsome, charismatic fellow, Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who takes over temporarily from the ailing Menashe.

    The women of the congregation collect money to pay a contractor to renovate the shul, especially the balcony as they are now forced to stand behind a gate which they call “an outhouse.” The ultra-conservative temporary rabbi wants the money to go for Torah scrolls.  He tells the men that women are the superior sex, that they each have the Bible inside of them and are exempt from even appearing at services.  (This turns out to be yet another excuse to force women to the sidelines.)

    The most amusing scene occurs when the women seek a bid from the contractor, serving as a virtual primer on negotiating and bargaining.  The women, like the heroines of Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata,” desert their men, marching outside the synagogue.  And who knows?  Maybe the Greeks got the idea from the Hebrews, whose civilization is about a millennium older.  In a form of deus ex machina, a young, courting couple who later end the movie at a joyous marriage celebration, try to save the day for the women and to wrest control of the synagogue from the power of the young fanatical leader.

    Getting back to the original premise of this review, except for one of two women who begin wrapping their heads in symbols of their more extreme religiosity, the rank and file of this community are certainly Orthodox, but they are more relaxed than the temporarily rabbi.  They may even chat during services, but they are all good people, right down to the small boy who feels so much a part of the community that he regularly seeks the attentions of the older people.

    The women include a number of comedians, particularly Orna Banay as Tikva, whose own charisma effectively challenges that of the new rabbi.  The community appear to be Sephardic, possibly Jews originally from Morocco.  While “The Women’s Balcony” is considered Israel’s number one movie recently, I preferred the more focused ultra-Orthodox-centered Israeli film “The Wedding Plan,” reviewed as well in this forum.

    Unrated.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member,

ONE OF US – movie review

  • ONE OF US

    Netflix
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
    Written by: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
    Cast:  Etty, Ari, Luzer
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/28/17
    Opens: October 20, 2017 streaming

    It’s good to fit in; in fact for teenagers it’s everything.  Look around at young people and you’ll see them tapping away at their iPhones as though to prove to passersby and to themselves that they’re A-OK.  You should have little trouble fitting in with a group that dresses like you, talks like you, sharing your culture including such all-important details is how many kids you’ll have.  That’s not all: one crowd you hang with allows you to avoid the anxiety of thinking about the purpose of life.  They already know, and so do you.  In fact 98% of this particular community remain together for life, only 2% quitting the fold.  We’re talking about Hasidim, the ultra-orthodox Jews who dress in long black coats, have payos, or round curlers around their ears, wear funny hats, and are never sunburned because of all the time they spend indoors, as kids studying Talmud.  Hasidim are an insular group.  The overwhelming majority, those who remain, can prompt the congregations to say “You’re one of us.”

    “One of Us,” a documentary written and directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, takes on Hasidic people, getting their exposure from from two women well known in the film community for “Jesus Camp” (about kids who attend summer evangelical camp each hoping to become the next Billy Graham); and “Detropria” (about the sad story of Detroit after the loss of its manufacturing base).  “One of Us” takes place principally in two areas of Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Borough Park, each of the two attracting a particular sect within the Hasidic community—though the divisions are not discussed by Ewing and Grady.  The film shines a light on three young Hasidic folks who bolted the community, each confessing to problems arising from the schism while at the same time praising their lives in the secular world.

    Ari, who left the community while still a teen, says that he is “tired of living a lie.”  The barber cuts the fellow’s payos amid Hasidic onlookers across the street, and though he is no longer in the insular community, he still practice Judaism and wears a kippa, or yarmulke.  Perhaps the easiest rebel to like is Luzer Twersky, who toyed with a potential separation by sneaky visits to Blockbuster (remember them?) and who had no idea what the larger world was like until he took in some movies.

    The most harrowing consequence of splitting finds Etty, who informs us about arranged marriage by noting that she and her prospective husband had a courtship of thirty minutes together, perhaps not even looking at each other.  This is sad: you figure that you’re going to have at least five babies with this one guy, so maybe you should spend a year dating before you realize that he’s tolerable and nice to be intimate with?  Since even the secular judge in the Family Court must abide by the law that the children of a divorcing couple should remain with their regular life-style, the father, who remains in the community, wins custody of the whole lot while the ex-wife is lucky to get one day of supervised visitation.    Never mind that the man was abusive.

    The film plugs an agency called Footsteps, which counsels Hasidim who have left, and who have serious problems getting jobs given that they had grown up without computers, internet, or TV.  Because of these limitations, a large percentage of Hasidim live on government grants.   After you see this film, take a guess:  how many secular or non-Hasidic viewers will decide to join this group, which in New York is 300,000 strong?  Probably less than the two percent who leave.

    Unrated.  95 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?