Leo Baeck divided human knowledge into three groups: those phenomena that we understand, those that we do not understand but that science will eventually explain, and “that which is impenetrable.” To my mind, the impenetrable is the most appealing part of religious thought.
It’s the mystery of the answers we will never have, and the Kierkegaardian leap of faith that they require.
This might seem an odd place to begin a column on Jewish-themed films in this year’s New Directors/New Films series, which runs March 16-27 (newdirectors.org), but the one thing that unites the four films under discussion is their surrender to the inexplicable. And at a time in which mainstream films are becoming more bone-headed in their obviousness, the direction taken by this quartet is a refreshing change.
In a certain sense, the languorous, cryptic style of “Demon,” “Tikkun” and “Mountain” is the current default setting for art-house filmmaking. But the sheer inexplicable strangeness of the events these three films present takes them to another, rarefied level.
“Demon” is the feature film debut of acclaimed Polish television director Marcin Wrona; regrettably, it is also his only feature film, as he committed suicide shortly after the movie began to make its way around the festival circuit. The film is a darkly humorous reworking of “The Dybbuk,” with a deftly realized switch that turns that familiar tale of love from beyond the grave into a parable of Polish anti-Semitism in the post-war era. After he uncovers a human skeleton on the grounds of his new home, a bridegroom begins behaving very strangely, channeling the spirit of a young Jewish bride whose death is never completely explained. The next day, the wedding party takes a series of ghastly (and ghostly) turns, becoming a black comedy in the vein of “The Exterminating Angel.”
“Tikkun” and “Mountain” are new Israeli films, by Avishai Sivan and Yaelle Kayam, respectively, in which charedi protagonists are forced out of their comfort zones by unexpected and incomprehensible events. Sivan’s film in particular epitomizes the spiritual conundrums around which these four films circle. Sivan’s ascetic protagonist, a young Talmud scholar Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel) is literally brought back from the dead, with unexpectedly awful results (and echoes of “The Dybbuk”). Shot in shimmering, richly textured black-and-white by Shai Goldman, the film has the twisted logic and dry wit of a nightmare scripted by Franz Kafka, and an ending that is utterly, gloriously opaque.
Kayam’s film is somewhat more straightforward, with her protagonist (a lovely performance by Shani Klein) an Orthodox mother of four whose days are filled with housework and meditative wanderings in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. She encounters and becomes friendly with a group of hookers, and her highly programmed existence is overturned. From the film’s opening shots of Klein walking among the forest of tombstones, the film gladly partakes of the “contemplative cinema” vibe, taking on an otherworldly, deliberate pace that imbues its rather conventional trajectory with a numinous subtext.
What, you may ask, does the Josh Kriegman-Elyse Steinberg documentary “Weiner” have to do with mystery and spirituality? The story of former Rep. Anthony Weiner — his sexting scandal, resignation and disastrous run for mayor — is much too familiar to Jewish Week readers. Surely, despite the nearly unlimited access the filmmakers had to Weiner, his campaign staff and even his wife Huma Abedin, there can be little left to reveal (no wisecracks, please). Putting aside, momentarily, the particularly amusing spectacle of Donald “Small Hands” Trump denouncing Weiner as “a pervert,” the portrait of a foundering political campaign is certainly unprecedented and riveting.
But the real fascination of “Weiner” lies in the questions that neither the film nor, more tellingly, its protagonist, can answer. For all the public naming, claiming and shaming, we remain unable to explain why Weiner destroyed his own career or, for that matter, what impels men and women into the public spotlight over and over again despite the damage it does to their lives. Equally inexplicable is the public obsession with such train wreck events and the (mercifully) brief spotlight it shows on miserable scavengers like Sydney Leathers, whose supposed revelations about phone sex with Weiner helped definitively scuttle his political career.
That is a mystery more appalling than the long-buried corpse in “Demon.”
George Robinson’s column appears monthly.