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Addressing, at Long Last, a Question of Identity

March 29, 1998|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In "A Price Above Rubies," which opened Friday, Renee Zellweger plays a free-spirited Jewish housewife and mother who challenges her Orthodox faith and struggles with sexual desire.

In "The Truce," opening next month, John Turturro plays Primo Levi, the celebrated Jewish Auschwitz survivor who reclaims his life and humanity during his painful journey back to his Italian homeland.

And in "The Governess," which opens in July, Minnie Driver plays a distraught Jew in pre-Victorian England who hides her faith to earn a living, and also struggles with sexual desire.

Something's definitely in the air, as a group of talented filmmakers turn the cameras on the Jewish heritage in vastly different directions, displaying a range of expression and experience rarely seen on screen--and utilizing three very talented and very hot actors.

The first indication was at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where, in addition to "A Price Above Rubies," there were several Jewish-themed films screened, most notably "Pi," which won the dramatic directing award for its depiction of a math genius obsessed with deciphering the root of pi to unlock the mystery of the Messiah.

But why this sudden profusion of independent Jewish films now? Could it be the lasting residue from the phenomenal success of "Schindler's List"? Or the fortuitous timing of the 50th anniversary of Israel's statehood? Or merely a creative coincidence?

For the filmmakers of "A Price Above Rubies," "The Truce" and "The Governess," the answer is the latter, though they're willing to concede that "Schindler's List" may have had an impact on the financing and distribution of their films. Yet all three insist that it was their passion that successfully brought their projects to the screen--a passion crucially shared by Zellweger, Turturro and Driver. "You do all this meticulous research, but in the end it becomes all about you--intimate, personal, a kind of selfish passion, a need to connect," says Boaz Yakin, the controversial writer-director of "A Price Above Rubies."

That certainly describes Yakin's alienated female protagonist, who tires of her unloving husband (Glenn Fitzgerald)--too absorbed in praying and the Talmud to satisfy her needs--and embarks on an affair with her seductive brother-in-law (Christopher Eccleston), who first hires her to be his jewelry buyer. However, she soon rejects his blatant selfishness and discovers her true passion and value through a romantic involvement with an unconventional Puerto Rican sculptor (Allen Payne).

Obviously not intended as a rosy celebration of the joys of Hasidism, "A Price Above Rubies" has predictably elicited outrage from the Borough Park Orthodox community in New York where the film takes place and where it was shot. A large and angry crowd of Hasidic Jews even drove the film crew out of the Brooklyn neighborhood last year. Then there was a small but vociferous protest more recently at the Manhattan offices of distributor Miramax Films, proclaiming negative stereotyping and anti-Jewish sentiment.

Yakin, who made his directorial debut with "Fresh," suggests his Hasidic depiction "is actually 10 degrees right of society. It's not that exotic, at the end of the day. When you get underneath it, it's a tight society. It's not utterly painful and restrictive. But I felt any kind of restriction, any kind of need to conform, can be very difficult on certain people. Obviously there are many happy Hasidic women out there, but it can be hard on some."

Zellweger's character is confused from the outset, when she and her brother try to repress their incestuous feelings as children in a fairy tale-like prologue and he tragically dies because he can no longer confront them. Later, as an adult, when she can no longer contain her sexual desire, she persists in keeping his memory alive, engaging in therapeutic dialogues with his spirit. And as if to confirm her worst fears about her future status in the Orthodox community, she continually encounters a ubiquitous beggar woman, who's become an outcast because of her sexual promiscuity.

Yakin says he's always been attracted to the theme of the outsider, having experienced the conflict himself. Despite a secular upbringing at home, the 32-year-old filmmaker attended Orthodox schools (yeshivas) through ninth grade. At home, with parents from the theater, he encountered an environment of creative individuality, while at school he encountered a more formal environment of communal conformity.

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