In Hollywood’s ‘The Possession,’ the dybbuk is back
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In Hollywood’s ‘The Possession,’ the dybbuk is back

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Matisyahu as Tzadok and Natasha Calis as Em in a scene from “The Possession.” Diyah Para

LOS ANGELES ““ Thought your daughter’s odd behavior was just another preteen phase?

There may be another explanation. The dybbuk is back.

The malevolent spirit from 16th-century Jewish mysticism and folklore reappears in “The Possession,” a Hollywood film featuring Matisyahu and Kyra Sedgwick that opens Friday.

In keeping with the times, the spirit has migrated from the Eastern European shtetl of S. Ansky’s iconic play “The Dybbuk” to contemporary American suburbia and the home of Clyde Brenek, a high school basketball coach and father of two daughters who is conflicted about his divorce.

Clyde takes the girls – Hannah, 15, and Em, 11 – to a yard sale, where Em is oddly attracted to a small box inscribed with Hebrew letters and persuades her father to buy it. At home in her room, overcome with curiosity, Em pries open the box and finds a bird’s skeleton, a lock of hair, strange carvings, and an ancient-looking ring.

Predictably, terrible things begin to happen. Em stabs her dad’s hand with a fork. Giant moths invade her bedroom. Her father throws the box into a distant dumpster, but she sallies forth across a dark deserted street in her nightgown to retrieve it.

The increasingly desperate father seeks medical advice; an MRI reveals strange apparitions within the girl’s body. A psychiatrist is ineffective. Finally, a professor recalls the dybbuk story and advises Clyde to travel to Brooklyn and appeal to an old chasidic rabbi.

The rabbi rejects Clyde’s pleas for help, but his son, played by the reggae and alternative rock musician Matisyahu, takes pity and agrees to try an exorcism.

In a stormy session, Em is freed of the dybbuk – the dislocated spirit of an odious sinner who died before repenting and now seeks refuge from avenging angels. It infests her father until it is finally forced to beat a protoplasmic retreat back into the box. Though seemingly defeated, the dybbuk eventually extracts its revenge.

The PG-13 movie is quite frightening, even to the mature skeptical mind. That said, it also is fairly safe to wager that “The Possession” will not win any Oscars, though young Canadian actress Natasha Calis, as the possessed girl, is convincingly frightening.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sorely tried father turns in a solid performance, while Sedgwick is stuck in the role of his shrill, angry ex-wife, Stephanie. Matisyahu makes an impressive screen debut as the exorcist.

Horrormeister Sam Raimi is the film’s co-producer, with Danish director Ole Bornedal at the helm. The Lionsgate/Ghosthouse production is based on a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Leslie Gornstein, “A Jinx in the Box?” which gives it a conceivable claim to veracity.

Gornstein’s article tracked a mysterious box – inscribed with the words from the Shema prayer – allegedly brought to America by an aged Holocaust survivor. It passed through the hands of various calamity-prone owners until it was auctioned off on eBay. The high bidder was Jason Haxton, a medical museum curator who investigated the story over many years and turned it into a book, The Dibbuk Box.

Haxton’s story is rooted in the actual world, with people sending emails and buying and selling on eBay, but in the end he leaves it to the reader to decide whether the story is a hoax.

Bornedal now owns the box and has it buried in his backyard.

“I’m not superstitious,” he said adding that for a few weeks he has worn the ring found inside the box.

Still, he acknowledges twinges of concern while flying, aware that the ring was along for the journey in his suitcase.

Bornedal speculates that the dybbuk’s possession of Em was largely an allegory on her inner fears at a time when her parents were going through a bitter divorce. While shooting the movie, he said, he concentrated on the production rather than worrying about the dybbuk’s alleged powers.

He maintained this attitude, he said, even when all the neon light fixtures exploded on the set in Vancouver, and when a fire destroyed all the props used in the movie shortly after the film wrapped.

His new film attests to the continuing fascination with the spiritual possession theme, especially in movies that re-enact the viewer’s dreamlike fears while he or she is safe in a seat, according to Edna Nahshon, a professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary who specializes in the Jewish theater.

In our time, she said, the dybbuk theme is still alive in the chasidic world; it is connected historically to kabbalistic teaching on the transmigration of souls. Nahshon added that the dybbuk theme is found in various forms in almost every culture and religion.

In Jewish tradition, the dybbuk is almost invariably male although usually it has a female soul and body. This scenario gives the possessed woman a voice to say what is normally repressed, including sexual desire, Nahshon said. But in “The Possession,” the gender identities are murkier. The dybbuk, however, is female, Bornedal said.

What is clear is that the dybbuk remains with us in theatrical performances and books.

Just before the opening of “The Possessed,” a Los Angeles theater concluded a stage run of “The Exorcist, ” like the film based on William Peter Blatty’s novel.

The dybbuk theme also showed up in the 2009 movie “A Serious Man” by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film opened with a presumed dybbuk visiting a house in an Eastern European shtetl, while its central character is a man beset by problems that neither he nor the wise rabbis he consults can explain.

The grandfather of the cinema dybbuks, the 1937 Polish Yiddish film “Der Dibbuk,” has been restored by the National Center for Jewish Film and continues to enjoy considerable popularity.

In recent years, the restored “Dibbuk” has screened worldwide in places ranging from the Austrian Film Archive to an outdoor screening at the Hollywood Bowl, Lisa Rivo, the film center’s associate director, said.

JTA Wire Service

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