Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

The Jewish family that tangos together stays together

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Sam Garbarski
Produced by Diana Elbaum
Written by Sam Garbarski and Phillippe Blasband
Released by Menemsha Films
Belgium/France/Luxembourg. 97 min. Not Rated
English, Hebrew and French with English subtitles
With: Nathan Cogan, Hippolyte Girardot, Jonathan Zaccaï, Michel Jonasz, Daniel Mesguich, Ludmila Mikaël & Rudi Rosenberg

If Tolstoy was Jewish, he might have said that every Jewish family is meshuge in its own way. Or that they drive each other crazy arguing over whether they are even Jewish or not.

An opening salvo at the complexity of Jewish identity is fired from the first sequence of The Rashevski Tango. Two old men confront each other in a yeshiva in the Israeli desert. The casually dressed Belgian Adolphe (Natan Cogan) has traveled far to face the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox rabbi Shmuel (Moscu Alcalay), who claims to only speak Hebrew. But the Hassid understands the scathing torrent of French well enough to call his brother a goy and to refuse to accompany him back to see the ill woman they both loved, his ex-wife Rosa. The visitor snorts "Sammy, then it was a goy who saved your life in the war!" and storms off.

He would have been too late. For the family he rejected back in Belgium, the death of their matriarch leaves them bereft of their fulcrum. She was a survivor and single mother who when the going got tough would have them tango ("a la Polonaise") through their troubles, her own chicken soup for the soul. But they need a guide for the perplexed when they learn she bought a plot in a Jewish cemetery and they have no idea how to proceed with her funeral. The family relationships are gradually revealed as the siblings, couples, parents and grown children dance with each other while sorting out their feelings and exploring religion, tradition, Talmudic law, ethnicity, food, faith, and, most of all, love (and sex).

All look to Uncle Dolpho, but he is more used to being a roué than a patriarch. Rosa's sons David the doctor (Daniel Mesguich) and Simon the shoe salesman (Michel Jonasz ) cope with life as orphans and intimations of mortality through insomniac chess matches. Simon's non-Jewish wife Isabelle (Ludmila Mikael) worries he will want to be buried with his mother, rather than with her, as she struggles to fill her mother-in-law's role in holiday gatherings.

Simon's 27-year-old daughter Nina (director Sam Garbarski's daughter Tania) suddenly hears her biological clock ticking for Jewish continuity. Her prodigal brother Jonathan (Jonathan Zaccai) returns to the fold on his own terms and brings his old friend Antoine (Hippolyte Girardot, who starred in Amos Gitai's recent similarly themed drama One Day You’ll Understand (Plus Tard, Tu Comprendras) and another sprawling family ensemble Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)). Antoine falls in love with Nina, her family, and their Jewish heritage, and his conversion and its impact on her and the family provides an unusually sensitive perspective. David's son Ric (Rudi Rosenberg) wants to get married after serving with the Israeli army in Lebanon – to an Arab woman, if she'll have him.

After playing at several Jewish film festivals, The Rashevski Tango is finally bowing theatrically in the U.S. as the assured and warm-hearted debut feature by the same creative team who four years later made the charming English-language Irina Palm (2007). Co-writer Phillippe Blasband drew on his own family's global diaspora diversity for inspiration, and certainly family gatherings these days embrace even more than these secular humanists, apostates, non-Jews, and the newly Orthodox; other ethnic groups will relate to the assimilation issues. Some of the Belgian Judaic terminology is too literally translated in the English subtitles, but American audiences can presume the context, such that references to "liberal Judaism" seem to be what would be Reform in the U.S., "the Consistory" would probably be a rabbinical council, and so forth.

Though sometimes the conflicts are too schematic, especially about prejudice, each member of the Rashevski family learns to separate their parents' decisions from the forging of their own Jewish identity, while still choosing to dance Rosa's tango. In a family where the ultimate compliment is to be a mensch, even though they can't define the Yiddish, each delightful character is a fully realized person with sympathetic reasons and motivations that resonate from the Holocaust on.

September 11, 2009

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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