Wishing an easy fast to all readers who commemorate Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in the Jewish faith! As a quick bonus post for this week, I’ve curated a list of 10 films available online that center questions of Jewish faith or identity. Enjoy one today or savor whenever!
An American Pickle, HBO Max
This is definitely a very silly movie, to be clear. But I find this strange fantasy-comedy about a Williamsburg Jew who has drifted far from his faith (played by Seth Rogen) and the resulting re-centering of his life by the appearance of a presumed-dead Old World ancestor found in a vat of pickle juice (also played by Seth Rogen) to be very mature and sincere about the role of religion in life. “Judaism has actionable protocols that do help,” Rogen told me in an interview last year. “At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion.”
This is probably Rachel McAdams’ best non-Regina George performance. As Esti, the wife of a rabbi in a strict community of Orthodox Jews in London, we meet her as the model of prim propriety. But that all starts to shift when a roving member of their faith returns to the fold, Rachel Weisz’s free-spirited Ronit, and opens new possibilities for sensual satisfaction and self-actualization. When it comes to movies about raging against patriarchal systems that treat women as mere property (the wigs to hide hair from all but their husbands!!), Disobedience is top tier.
Fill the Void, rental
Rama Burshtein’s story from the Hasidic community takes a look more from the inside. Fill the Void derives exquisite narrative and moral tension from the choice facing teenage protagonist Shira. When her older sister dies in childbirth, her community pressures her to subsume her own desires in the name of family preservation. Elders strongly urge Shira to marry her widowed brother-in-law and assume maternal responsibilities for the child. It’s 90 minutes of pure, poignant drama.
Keeping the Faith, HBO Max
I’ll stop and watch this movie any time I see it on TV. Keeping the Faith is a rom-com with stakes as two sides of a love triangle clash with the difficulties of courting the free-spirited but beguiling Anna Riley (Jenna Elfman). The guys are childhood best friends who each became faith leaders — Edward Norton’s Brian Finn joins the priesthood of the Catholic faith, which obviously presents some dating complications. But even when it is technically allowed for Ben Stiller’s rabbi Jake Schram, he must grapple with the internalized and anticipated guilt for looking outside his faith.
Munich, Showtime Anytime and various digital platforms for rental
It’s been many years since I’ve seen Munich, so I can’t speak to its virtues with all that much detail. But my gosh, late period Spielberg is full of riches — and this is chief among them. What presents as an action-thriller about hunting down the terrorists who murder Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games slowly transforms itself into a haunting meditation on the virtues of retributive violence. “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values,” the film’s incarnation of Prime Minister Golda Meir says at the start of the film. In Munich, Spielberg uses his mastery of cinematic language to figure out where they settled at the time … and whether it was worth the cost.
A Serious Man, rental
I will truly never forget walking out of the theater in 2009 after seeing A Serious Man, feeling beyond baffled by what on earth the Coen Brothers were trying to say. But it was the kind of confused that pulled me into the mysteries deeper rather than pushing me away. Now, I’d easily count this modern reimagining of the Job story through the lens of their mid-century Midwestern cultural Judaism among the best movies they’ve ever made. Few films grapple so profoundly with the lack of answers religion can provide when people are flailing around for a moral framework to understand suffering.
Shiva Baby, HBO Max
Forgive the self-plaigarism, but I don’t think I could have said it much better than last month’s newsletter where I ranked Shiva Baby among the 10 best movies of 2021 already available to stream: “This claustrophobic comedy about a floundering Jewish twentysomething whose past, present, and future all collide at a shiva ceremony was the breakout hit of New York’s theatrical reopening — playing for 12 weeks at the Quad Cinema. It’s the kind of movie that proves sometimes the most culturally specific stories can be the most universal, as anyone who knows the benefits and drawbacks of an insular community can see themselves reflected here.”
Son of Saul, rental
The Holocaust is a brutal topic, and I can only imagine that some people have lost the stomach to watch any more narratives from the period. But if you haven’t seen the harrowing Son of Saul, I promise it’s a worthy expansion of perspective on the tragedy. Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes tethers his camera to the subjective experience of Saul, a concentration camp “sonderkommando” who collaborates with his captors in the hope of some preferential treatment. While the film does not shy away from atrocity, it centers on Saul attempting to hang on to a small shred of humanity by attempting to provide a proper Jewish burial to a boy he finds in the chambers. This is a visceral way to experience an unfathomably large tragedy on the most intimate and human of scales.
To Dust, Vudu (free with ads) and various digital platforms for rental
This is such a strange movie in the best possible way. You’re not seeing double, that’s Géza Röhrig from Son of Saul once again. Here, he’s playing a Hasidic New Yorker who turns to the certainty of science to assuage him after the uncertainty of religion leaves him reeling following the death of his wife. To Dust plays like an odd couple buddy comedy between Röhrig’s Shmuel and the professor he latches onto, Matthew Broderick’s Albert, to understand the natural processes of death, decomposition, and decay.
Uncut Gems, Netflix
OK, this is technically a Passover movie given the seder in the film. But in terms of a film grappling with contemporary Jewish identity, it’s hard to think of a more prominent example than the Safdie Brothers’ stressful dramatic thriller Uncut Gems. I still owe this a second watch because I don’t think it quite compares to their masterpiece Good Time (also on Netflix!) — but as a portrait of a community forged in commerce and solidified by faith, this is pretty peerless.
That’s it for today! To anyone who might be fasting, sundown is fast approaching … hang in there.
Yours in service and cinema,