It happens that a film touches your feelings, and it’s difficult to say why: because of an intimate knowledge of a social milieu (here: an orthodox Jewish community in Israel); because of a universal touch of the story (here: the death of a child, the grief of a mother); or because of a lucid use of the means of cinema.
Undoubtedly, one of the advantages of My Father My Lord (Hofshat kaits, 2006 *), the first film by 37-year-old Israeli director David Volach, is that the director (who also wrote the screenplay) knows whereof he speaks. He has been brought up in the Lithuanian Haredic community in Jerusalem, obviously a very orthodox milieu (“This group,” he says, “has become more and more elitist and exclusive and has produced great leaders of the Jewish orthodox community both in Israel and abroad”). Only at the age of 25 did he manage to leave his family and to study cinema in Tel Aviv. It may be that he needed to make this film, to liberate himself from the influence of his origins and the pressures of a social system which he shows, in his film, as a quasi-fundamentalist one. This psychological aspect would be understandable, but would of course not be enough to make an interesting film — which My Father My Lord is.
My Father My Lord begins with a deep insight into the everyday life of a family submitting itself unquestioningly to the rules of religion. The father, Abraham: a respected rabbi, the camera shows him closely, surrounded by and almost disappearing behind books, deeply occupied with his studies of Torah and Jewish laws, and you understand that this man gets all he knows about life from books. His son, Menachem, five or six years old: sitting at his father’s feet, observing him taciturnly, accepting without any resistance and even with a certain openness and curiosity his father’s attempts to introduce him into his world and belief. The mother: almost a servant, who warmheartedly glances at the idyllic scene of father and son consolidated in their studies. At night, in the sleeping room, she follows the laws and doesn’t speak to her husband, but writes down on a sheet of paper what she wants to say. It’s a strange and very ritualized life.
My Father My Lord is one of the few Israeli films (along with Ushpizin by Gidi Dar, 2005) to talk about an orthodox Jewish family not from an outside point of view but from personal experience. It seems that, in the first half of his film, he stays a not-involved observer. He shot the scenes mainly within the family’s apartment and used a lot of close-ups, thus creating the impression of a hermetically closed and self-contained world from which no escape is possible. However, at this point of the film, it’s not yet clear where he wants to go.
Then, the view opens. Together with other members of the community, the family undertakes a summer excursion to the Dead Sea. The camera (Boaz Yaacov) catches picturesque images of orthodox Jewish men in their traditional costumes (the women weren’t allowed to join them) in midst of a dreary landscape. The children are playing around. Father and son, Abraham and Menachem, drift together on the waves of the salty sea. A little later, Menachem follows his play instinct, runs along a trickle through the sand into the sea, while his father and the other men gather for prayer. From this point, David Volach uses an extremely elliptic narration. His camera doesn’t follow the son, but stays motionless at the beach and observes how men run excited back and forth, how the news that something terrible has happened spreads around and gets finally to the father. Later on, it has become night, a helicopter fishes Menachem’s corpse out of the sea.
Suddenly, the — till now rather uneven — film gets a story, a conflict, a drive. Abraham, the father, seeks comfort in his religion: “it’s God’s will” (David Volach refers to the myth of the Biblical Abraham who according to the Torah tradition has been demanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, to prove his faith). Only, there’s a lot of desperation in his face (the role is impressively played by Assi Dayan, one of Israel’s leading actors). It may be a first sign for him that not all truth lies in his belief.
The much harsher comment, however, is given by his wife. For her, Abraham is guilty of the death of their son because he didn’t pay attention to him and left him unobserved while saying his prayer. In a Western movie, this would be the occasion for an extensive psychological dialogue and accusation. David Volach found a convincingly simple symbol. One of the last scenes shows Abraham sitting desperate over his books, and his wife throws from upstairs all the books on religion and its laws and traditions down on him, a gesture meaning: Look to what end your unquestioning belief brought us. No dialogue is necessary in this overwhelming scene, expressing both the doubts of the man and the grief of the woman.
Maybe David Volach needed first to dive into the milieu, in order to come to this point of a most rigorous commentary on the boundaries and dangers of this — his own — ultra-orthodox Jewish milieu. It’s a commentary that easily can be read also as a critique of all kinds of fundamentalist education. It’s a commentary which comes from inside, which makes it more difficult to disprove.
Even under the conditions of the very quick shooting of the film, and though the editing could be improved (no need to start the film with the end and to come back at the end to the beginning) – even knowing these limitations of the production, at least the second part, at the Dead Sea, reveals a well-thought-out and well-handled use of filmic means, of camera, of editing. This makes us eagerly await David Volach’s next film.