Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Israel Film Center Festival Spotlight: The Unorthodox

I’m pleased to be covering the 7th Annual Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, which runs June 3rd-12th.

The Unorthodox
Directed by Eliran Malka
Screening June 4 at 8:30pm

Every country has a unique political structure that evolves over time. How a nation came into being usually plays a part in the issues its future government representatives wish to advocate either for or against, as do the goals for what the country can become. The United States may be known as a land of immigrants, and that’s certainly true of Israel as well, especially as people from places with once-thriving Jewish populations moved there as conditions back home became increasingly dangerous. Like the United States, prejudices about the color of a person’s skin or their place of birth are far more common and influential than they should be.

In 1983, printer Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand) storms into his daughter’s yeshiva school, furious that she has been kicked out for no discernable reason other than her Middle Eastern roots. Angry with the dominance of European Ashkenazi leaders in Jerusalem city politics, Yaakov seeks to find a voice for the Sephardic community. With the help of a political operator (Yoav Levi) and a rabbi (Yaacov Cohen), Yaakov begins to exert his energy to form an ultra-Orthodox party that represents so many immigrants like himself, traveling an uphill battle to earn the required authorizations and permissions to form a new party with an actual shot at victory.

This film, which is based on true events in the creation of the Israeli party Shas, or Shomrei Torah Sepharadim, begins from a lighthearted point as Yaakov seems ready to bulldoze any obstacle in his way in order to get justice first for his daughter and then for his people. As he enters politics, the landscape is described through narration and still images, blending history with humor as Yaakov and his allies do their best to survive in a system not set up for splintered identities. At its most moving, this film depicts Yaakov as a dreamer, still aware of his own limitations as evidenced by his visit to his former school to stomp out any chance of him stuttering before an important meeting. Yaakov is fired up, but he’s also human.

Rand is a religious actor best known for written and starring in “Ushpizin,” his last film role before this one. He is deeply charismatic and endearing, leaving other characters to shine in scenes that are meant to have him in the background, even if the story is still framed from his point of view. Levi, Cohen, and the rest of the cast offer solid support in this enlightening and entertaining look at the origins of an operation that now looks so little like what its first visionary dreamed for it several decades ago.


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