Jewish World Review / April 20, 1998 / 24 Nissan, 5758

Talkies Az Da (Hasidic) Vorld Terns

By Mike Caccioppoli

SOMETHING must have happened very early on in the life of A Price Above Rubies' writer/director Boaz Yakin to make him have such dislike, even hatred, for the Hasidic community.

Yakin, who stunned audiences and critics alike with his debut film, Fresh, is obviously so blinded by these feelings that he's not only made a confused and disjointed film, but an irresponsible one as well.

Rene Zellweger, fresh from her stunning performance in Jerry Maguire, plays Sonia, the wife of a Hasidic scholar named Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald). Sonia, it seems, has never been fond of her people's ways and mores. In one scene, she tells a rabbi that she feels a "burning" inside her and questions whether or not she actually has a soul. The next day the sage turns up dead, so awakened by his own "burning" for her.

Sonia's brother-in-law, Sender, (Christopher Eccleston, a British actor in what is a strange bit of casting) senses that Sonia is ready to break free of the all-encompassing rules of her religion and decides to give her a chance to prove it. Since she's a jewelry maven, having studiously watched and assisted "in the business," he puts up the capital and, surprise, surprise, she's successful. Lest one mistakenly suspect that Yakin actually created one likeable "authentic Hasidic" character, let's just say Senders's "kindness" wasn't exactly for humanitarian reasons. For Sonia, in fact, it comes at quite a cost, and I don't mean a financial one, either. Remember this is a Marimax film.

At least temporarily, though, Poor-ol'-Sonia finally feels independent, in control of her life and destiny.

But then she meets Ramon, (Allen Payne), a young Puerto Rican man who makes his own jewelry. And she immediately has an epiphany. She feels that there must be more to life. They wind up becoming, hmm, "intimate."

Ignoring the absurd storyline, and focussing merely on Rubies as art, the problem with this flick is that the viewer is never presented with the ability to understand Sonia's feelings and, in turn, her resulting actions. One can only guess about the turmoil she's feeling, since the film doesn't offer much.

A Price Above Rubies often raises issues of spirituality and "finding oneself," clearly topics underappreciated in today's Hollywood. But the film never gives us a vehicle in which to appreciate and sympathize with these various feelings. I believe that's because Yakin himself doesn't know his protagonist very well. As a practicing Catholic, it's obvious to me what he does know. And that's some deep-seeded problems with the Hasidic community, plain and simple.

The Eccleston character is seen as a snake who prays on Sonia's vulnerability. Ask yourself if he'd really be able to get away with half of what he does in such a tight-knit community. Mendel, the husband, is portrayed as a wimp who hides behind his religion and his books. Sex with Mendel is shown as mundane and boring. OY! but with that Puerto Rican stud ... watch out! These are petty stereotypes that Yakin has written, as he undoubtedly believes Hasidic people to be a pack of wolves ready to pounce on anyone who doesn't believe in their strict ways.

But it's Yakin's lack of objectivity, that never allows him to see inside of Sonia, who could have potentially been an interesting, if not exotic, exercise in charcter development. And that's a real shame. But you know what? I don't think he even cares. Sonia's character is just what Yakin wants her to be --- a way to get back at the Hasidic people for something, what I don't know. Sonia's "independence" is strictly imposed by Yakin. Now what kind of hypocrite does that make him?

New JWR contributor Mike Caccioppoli is a veteran New York movie critic whose work has appeared on radio and in print.

©1998, Mike Caccioppoli