THY FATHER’S CHAIR – movie review


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

ONE OF US – movie review


    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?