"The Burial Society" is a crafty little crime film that mixes Old Testament wisdom with an O. Henry plot. Written and directed by Canadian Nicholas Racz, the film features fine performances by a cast of veteran actors but is marred by its unconvincing back story.
Rob LaBelle stars as Sheldon, a nebbish seeking to begin a new life. There is more to the bald, bespectacled Sheldon than meets the eye, however, and when he seeks to join the local Chevrah Kadisha, a secret society that carries out the rituals of Jewish burial, the three old men who make up the group are understandably suspicious.
Sheldon gradually wins them over as he tells his story. He had been a longtime loan manager at the Hebrew National Bank when he learned that his bosses, the Lightman brothers, had been laundering money for the Jewish mob. Money had gone missing from an account and the Lightmans suspected Sheldon. A big shot named Sam Goldberg (Seymour Cassel) threatened the brothers and Sheldon was forced to run.
Empathetic to his plight, Hy (Allan Rich), Marvin (Jan Rubes) and Harry (Bill Meilen) painstakingly show Sheldon the intricate rites involved with the tahara, the ceremonial washing of the body, and the shmira, in which someone constantly sits with the deceased.
Sheldon develops a particularly close bond with Marvin, and when the desperation of the younger man's situation is revealed it is their conversations that weigh heavily on his conscience. Marvin has divined that Sheldon had been sent by God to save the Chevrah Kadisha, a responsibility he is unwilling to accept.
The theological elements of "The Burial Society" are what give it some substance even when the thriller aspects let it down. The intentionally unreliable narrator doesn't work as a device here, and the lack of a consistent narrative places the audience in the position of having to be walked through flashbacks in order to distinguish what actually happened.
The gimmicky nature of the flashbacks weakens the story and lessens the film's suspense. Nevertheless, "The Burial Society" is a clever, spiritual film that argues that God sees all and, what's more, he's always right.
'The Burial Society'
MPAA rating: R for language
Times guidelines: Threats of violence and the preparation of bodies for burial
Rob LaBelle...Sheldon Kasner
Jan Rubes...Marvin Telekunsky
Allan Rich...Hy Leibowitz
Bill Meilen...Harry Epstein
David Paymer...Morry Zimmer
Seymour Cassel...Sam Goldberg
A Regent Entertainment Release. Writer-director Nicholas Racz. Producers Richard Baumgartel, Howard Dancyger. Executive producers J. Todd Harris, Raymond Massey. Cinematographer Danny Nowak. Editor Jeremy Presner. Costume designer Katia Stano. Music George Blondheim. Production designer James Hazell. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010; and Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.