This piece is written by our guest writer Redmond Bacon.
The piety of an Orthodox Jew is tested in Geula (Redemption), a touching Israeli drama about the nature of religion, family and friendship. Unforced in its themes and unhurried in its development, its draws its quiet power from a strong central performance by Moshe Folkenflik.
He plays Menachem, who, to borrow the title of a Coen Brothers movie, is a very serious man indeed. Never seen without his yarmulke (sometimes even wearing it under a baseball cap) Menny is a strict follower of the Hasidic faith. Six years widowed, he even uses an old-school match-making service – known as The Shidduch – to find a new wife.
There is the sense that he is overcompensating for something. Previously the lead singer of a relatively popular rock band, he left that life behind to dedicate himself to the teachings of the Torah. Although not made explicit, we gather that the rock-and-roll life left him spiritually wanting. Circumstances change, however, when his daughter develops cancer. His job in the supermarket isn’t enough to pay for the expensive “experimental” treatment, so he has to try and get the band back together to make money from traditional weddings and bar mitzvahs. It is through reuniting with these friends that Menny has to come to terms with the mistakes of the past and do what’s right by his daughter.
He can be a difficult person to get through to on a personal level. When receiving a compliment, for example, he always thanks God instead of taking any of the credit for himself. This constant dedication to saying the “correct thing” over being honest with his friends leads to endless friction. Folkenflik does a great job here, able to convey these internal contradictions through body language and gesture alone. It’s like he wants to change, but his piety simply won’t let him.
There is a line between interrogating a religion’s strictest observances and outright criticising the construct as a whole, but Geula manages to see it both as a source of renewal for its protagonist while acknowledging that total strictness can get in the way of leading a truly virtuous life. It seems to be arguing that actions are just as important as words, and taking on and respecting the opinions of your friends – even if they are not religious at all – is another way of doing God’s work. It shows that religious faith is found, not just in believing in God, but believing in yourself too. Having grown up in an Ultra-Orthodox family, co-director Joseph Madmony has first-hand experience in this field, and his film speaks with a true understanding of the complexities of faith.
With such great material to work from, I only hoped that Madmony, co-directing with his cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, would have done more to tighten the screws. By really forcing Menny’s hand, and putting him into a difficult moral situation, this could’ve been another exploration of the difficulties of faith on the level of A Separation. By the end, they pull back and go for something gentler, eventually tying up the central conflict in a relatively neat bow. This is a little frustrating considering the richness of its premise. Nonetheless, by being attentive to the plights of its protagonist without unduly judging him for his steadfastness, Geula remains a universally relatable tale about finding the strength to trust other people. It reminds us that we might not be able to change our past, but with the right guidance, we can learn to move on and become better people in the future. If only it put this message within a more gripping story, then we could’ve laid witness to something truly great.