Just in time for the holidays, particularly Chanukah and Eid al-Adha (okay, that was a few weeks ago), here come two new Mideast films that quietly tear into the bilious, ruinous hypocrisies of fundamentalist religion. It’s an ironic conflict from where we stand: nothing is as ripe and ready for the firing squad as reactionary religious discipline, and yet few social codes are as ubiquitous. What’s more, they all somehow demand “respect.” Outside of most neighborhoods in most American and European metropoli, you can hardly throw an Orwell paperback without hitting and infuriating a narrow-minded fundamentalist, and I suppose how you measure the attack-mode nuts of David Volach’s “My Father My Lord” (2007) and Özer Kiziltan’s “Takva: A Man’s Fear of God” (2006) depends on how strenuously you feel the press of “extreme tradition” (my phrase!) in your own life. The movies seem from a New Yorker’s perspective to go gently, though with firm conviction, for the throat, while in Israel’s Haredic communities, and in Turkey’s Muslim enclaves, the films might inspire fiery damnations aplenty. Or none at all.
Volach’s movie is by far the more artful — I wasn’t sure, with its stereotypical overbearing rabbi dad versus impetuous young son template, if it’d show me something real, but then, early on, there it was: little preadolescent Menahem (Ilan Grif) walks home at night past an ambulance taking a dead woman from her apartment, and out of the building lopes a German Shepherd, ears up and panicking, looking for its mistress. It circles in a run and ends up jumping into the ambulance beside the gurney, and will not be budged. Like the boy, we’re riveted.
The father’s strict adherence to Torah collides with the boy’s natural curiosity about life, of course, but not so much dramatically — Volach instead suggests the inner imbalance by simply watching how Menahem gets distracted during services by daydreams, and how the father brews silently about his son’s unwillingness to bend completely to the traditional will. The key to the struggle is the mother (Sharon Hacohen-Bar), a younger woman devoted to a lifestyle that thoroughly subjugates her (when the family goes to the beach, she must go to a separate section, away from the men), and who forms the tip of a familial triangle, calling her husband on the carpet for being inflexible without saying a word. Volach grew up Haredic, and so the film’s tragic denouement reads like an act of merciless cultural revenge. (It’s there, too, in a tiny shot of a plastic-bagged fish trying, once the bag is dropped and burst, to swim back up into it.) The davenning of the faithful takes on a hatefully narcissistic aura. At the same time, “My Father My Lord” is most resonant as an intimate portrait of a young boy’s worldview, tugged at by orthodoxy but inherently defiant.
“Takva” is another morality tale, set in Istanbul and centered on middle-aged bachelor-schlub Muharrem (Erkan Can), who owns little and obeys only his daily Muslim duties, a static situation that changes once his mullah hires him (because he is utterly guileless) to serve as the mosque’s business agent — collecting rents from tenants all over the city, and bribes from contractors. (He’s also haunted by “sinful” wet dreams.) Of course, being an innocent, Muharrem is oblivious to his new job’s unholy aspects at first, but eventually, as he is presented with a chauffeur, a cell phone and a Western business wardrobe, the chips begin to fall, the steady river of justifications that flow from the mosque’s leaders fail to convince him, and he is faced with a catastrophic sense of ethical compromise.
Turkey, like Israel, may be experiencing a kind of mini-new wave (at least based on what we see), but Kiziltan’s film, while being both economical and often over-expressive, is hardly an art film domino falling into line behind Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Still, its portrait of fat, prevaricating mosque elders talking about obedience to Allah but actually concerned only with profit has teeth. That is, unless, as I’ve suggested, you’re Turkish and Muslim, and the film comes off as a mere fable about the perils of naiveté and of Islamic life becoming too Westernized and capitalist. Given the secular-militarist nation’s conflicted relationship with its own huge Muslim population, the film might actually be taken as pro-fundamentalist and anti-democratic in thrust — such is the Rorschachian torque of political cinema.
“My Father My Lord” (Kino) and “Takva: A Man’s Fear of God” (Koch Lorber Films) are now available on DVD.
[Photos: “My Father My Lord, Kino, 2008; “Takva: A Man’s Fear of God,” Kock Lorber, 2008]