In its own daffy way, “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” is as much a documentary as it is a comedy-drama. The film’s cast consists of alienated chasidic youth re-enacting their own pasts as runaways, scam artists and street kids. The film’s writer-director, Eve Annenberg, plays a nurse, which is what she is in her day job, who becomes involved in the lives of these kids when, as part of her graduate work outside the medical world, she is commissioned to create a modernized Yiddish-language version of the venerable Shakespeare romantic tragedy.
Of course the film, which opens on June 8, isn’t really a documentary. But it is an unusual mash-up of contemporary street Yiddish, quasi-Mumblecore, Shakespeare and a dope-riddled Three Stooges film. Sounds like a train wreck but, despite frequent misfires, the film has a sweet naïveté that makes it as faithful a “Romeo and Juliet” as any I’ve seen on film. (To be honest, this tragedy is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and none of the previous film versions I’ve seen of it even begins to work.)
Annenberg plays the Shakespeare pretty straight, with the Satmar and Chabad standing in for the Capulets and Montagues, and other shrewdly judged transpositions making it play surprisingly well. The masked ball becomes a Purim party, Friar Laurence is now Rabbi Laurence, and the swordplay is now a combination of wildly swinging reinforcing bars and nasty little sharp objects. What makes this all hang together is the fact-based underpinning; Annenberg’s cast consists almost entirely of non-actors playing themselves in the framing device, and they slip with surprising ease and frequent grace into their Elizabethan counterparts, albeit still in Williamsburg and Borough Park. As a result, a project that could be a fiasco has a basic truthfulness that carries it past a lot of awkwardness.
The basic structure of the film is sound, its overall architecture well thought out. But within scenes and in transitions, Annenberg’s directorial choices are often awkward. There are too many dialogue-free scenes that exist basically as music videos, adding nothing to the film’s tone, mood, texture or narrative flow. The inclusion of a young student of Jewish mysticism who says he is suffering “from kabbalitis, I studied too much kabbalah and now I’m leaking,” is a rather lame plot device that belongs to a different Shakespeare play and adds nothing to the film. Repeated use of time-lapse transitions seems at first like a trite way of indicating the passage of time (it’s the post-modern equivalent of a montage of pages blowing off a calendar). When Annenberg uses it in an attempt to convey the anguish of the Capulets when Juliet apparently commits suicide, it trivializes their emotions.
Yet for all the miscues, there is something warm and appealing at the heart of the film. Unlike most of the Mumblecore films I’ve seen, there is something real at stake here, and the cast throw themselves into their work with a focus that belies their lack of training. I suspect that the next project Annenberg has mentioned, a Yiddish-language “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” might better suit her cast and her own talents. At the very least, it is one Shakespeare play that has plenty of magic for a kabbalistically inclined young man to dabble in.
“Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” produced, written and directed by Eve Annenberg, opens on Friday, July 8 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 W. 65th St., Lincoln Center). For information, go to www.filmlinc.com/films/series/elinor-bunin-munroe-film-center.