|A scene from “FÃ©lix and Meira.”|
One of the more exciting developments in cinema over the last decades is an effort to contemplate aspects of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life.
Though you might think that the unseen and somewhat mystical world of the chasidim would invite cinematic study, few narrative and documentary filmmakers have done so. Adapting Chaim Potok’s novel for the screen in 1981, Jeremy Paul Kagan gave us “The Chosen,” and 16 years later, Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky brought us the documentary, “A Life Apart: chasidism in America.” In the years that followed, a few Israeli filmmakers, including Amos Gitai, made unflattering movies about that world. Now, Maxime Giroux’s “FÃ©lix and Meira,” a powerful study of disparate worlds colliding when a young chasidic mother unexpectedly meets a non-Jewish man as he struggles to come to grips with his father’s death, charts new ground.
The film is set in Montreal’s Mile End district, home to one of the largest ultra-Orthodox communities in the world, where French Canadian Catholics live next to chasidim of all persuasions. A chance encounter at a local bakery brings the film’s two protagonists together as they forge what begins as an innocent friendship. The two are so totally different – and that clearly is part of the attraction between them. The film turns out to be a powerful study of two people struggling to break free of the worlds that confine them and turning to each other for aid, comfort, and guidance.
Filmmakers are captivated by those Jews who either relinquish their Judaism or seek a way to reconnect as Jews. In Israel, Shuli Rand dealt with this subject in the 2004 “Ushpizin,” a film that he wrote and in which he starred. Rand had grown up in a religious home, but he gave up religion when he chose a career in theater. Then, after several years as a successful actor, he became a baal teshuva, a Jew who embraces (or reembraces) Judaism, and he has lived his life as a charedi Jew ever since. In “Ushpizin,” Rand’s character struggles with his life as an ultra-traditional Jew living in Jerusalem. During Sukkot, he meets non-religious Jews, friends from his previous life. He takes hold of the situation and invites them in, not just to his sukkah but to his world.
In contrast, Adam Vardy’s 2003 “Mendy” focuses on a man who has fled the Brooklyn chasidic community, hoping to find a life in Manhattan free from what he perceives as the indentured framework of the chasidic world. The film provides a fascinating look at what a former chasid must tackle as he changes his life. He must confront loss of community and structure and the ambiguities of life in the outside world. Boaz Yakin tackled some of these same issues in his 1998 film, “A Price Above Rubies,” starring Julianna Margulies and RenÃ©e Zellwinger.
In “FÃ©lix and Meira,” there is no kiruv, no drawing people into the community, as in “Ushpizin.” Nor is there total rejection, as we saw in “A Price Above Rubies” and “Mendy.” Nor is this a warm and thoughtful study of the charedi world, as we saw in Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s 2012 “Fill the Void.” This film looks at two worlds and the affection that two people from those worlds hold for each other. It studies the way they handle the quandaries their connection creates. FÃ©lix introduces Meira to the outside world, where she struggles with the meaning of family, community, and relationships. In turn, Meira gives FÃ©lix a sense of self and purpose, which he always had lacked.
Quebecois director Maxime Giroux and his screenwriter, Alexandre LaferriÃ¨re, have always been fascinated with this world next door, a world they never quite understood. In a conversation with the director, he told me that it was his curiosity that drew him to try to understand who these Jews were. “The more I studied, the less I understood,” he said. And so he studied more.
Israeli actress Hadas Yaron, who played the lead role of Shira in “Fill the Void,” is Meira. Giroux initially avoided choosing her because of her previous work, but she is superb. The film was eye-opening, Yaron told me. “I found that I became prejudiced – but the other way around. I was so in love with the chasidic community because of my work on ‘Fill the Void.’ Then I came to realize that this chasidic world is more complicated than I had thought it was.”
Her co-star, Luzer Twersky, who left the chasidic world in real life, and who does a fine job as Meira’s husband, Shulem, gave her another perspective. In “Fill the Void,” Yaron played a woman in a film made by members of the charedi world. Now, she was playing a very different role, created by outsiders. The result is a very different portrayal.
“FÃ©lix and Meira” is a beautiful, low-budget Canadian-made film that asks tough questions and provides us with a penetrating look at life in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. It raises tough questions, while giving us trenchant insights. Go see it! It is playing in New York uptown at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side and downtown at Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street.