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Review: 'Romeo and Juliet,' stars crossed yet very much aligned

May 11, 2012|By Sheri Linden, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Bubbles Yoeli Weiss as Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish."
Bubbles Yoeli Weiss as Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish." (Mafalda Melo, Mafalda Melo )

Brooklyn's infighting Hasidim meet the Bard in "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish," Eve Annenberg's exuberant new feature.

Openhearted and kvetching, the comedy filters a very particular slice of contemporary New York through Shakespeare's star-crossed tale and a bit of kabbalistic magic. One joy of the gawky-lovely film is that it probably represents the most extensive use of Yiddish on the big screen in decades.

Annenberg ("Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint") built the movie around nonprofessional actors who grew up in Williamsburg's insular community of ultra-Orthodox Jews and learned English only after leaving the fold. The filmmaker included, they're all playing versions of themselves as well as Shakespearean counterparts.

Annenberg portrays Juliet's nurse and Ava a jaded ER nurse and secular Jew who's working on a midlife master's degree. She enlists the help of three twentysomething dropouts from Orthodoxy for an academic project: updating a 1939 translation of Shakespeare from old to modern Yiddish.

The dialogue can be razor-sharp. "A little thuggy" is how Ava explains the Montagues and Capulets to her trio of homeless fraudsters. In turn, they elucidate the internecine hostilities among Orthodox sects. The film moves between intersecting worlds with Groucho-esque cerebral antics and visual nods to Chagall.

The performances are uneven, but there's a grimy thrill to seeing scenes from the play in subway cars and on fire escapes.

If the love story between Romeo (Lazer Weiss) and Juliet (Melissa Weisz) lacks the resonance of the source material, the effusive dark humor of contemporary Yiddishkeit makes up for it: A dying language sounds very much alive and well.

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