The Accountant – a movie review

The Accountant – a movie review

Howard Adelman

Last evening, we went to see a movie, The Accountant, with a large group of friends. It had been one of the few films that all of us had not seen. It would certainly not have been my first choice since the movie was billed as an action-thriller, and I am probably your typical middle class old age movie snob. In fact, after the movie was over and we did a survey of who liked the film, about half said it was just ok and a few did not care for the movie. Without my and my wife’s votes, the film would have been given a 5 or 6 out of 10 average. However, both of us would have given the movie an 8. We were the outliers.

Why the discrepancy?

From the discussions we had afterwards, I attribute the explanation to three factors:
• The difficulty of following three different plots as they were interwoven at very different rates with sudden subtle and frequent shifts
• The large quantity of those twists and turns in that plot
• Missing the underlying symbolic and moral thrust of the movie.
Though most were not put off by the general mayhem and the large number of comic book murders of a thriller of this type, and most agreed that Ben Affleck, whom I do not ordinarily care for as an actor, did an excellent job in this movie. Nevertheless, we evaluated the movie in general terms very differently.

All of us had been entertained, but to very different degrees. We agreed that Ben Affleck had been subtle and suitably subdued, nuanced and even empathetic, playing a very odd comic book superhero, Christian (Chris) Wolff. (This core alias is not just a disguise but a source of revelation.) We also agreed the film was an excellent advertisement for autism, for Chris was autistic, a fact established at the very beginning of the film with the flashback to his childhood, but reasonably disguised in a very stoic performance when he had become an adult and, by and large, strictly controls expressing any inappropriate emotions – except his unusual degree of control.

Chris, however, exhibits all the symptoms of the more serious cases of autism of the 1 in 68 children mentioned in the film, mostly boys. The film, in one of its early flashbacks – and there are many of them – with the peculiar habits of children and the way they line up toys and other objects. As an adult, Chris is very precise in how he places his three pancakes, his two perfectly-made sunny-side-up eggs and broken bacon strips on his plate. He clearly lives alone and the very few pieces of cutlery are placed meticulously in his cutlery drawer.

As a child, Chris has a terrible time relating to other children, except to his younger and very loyal brother, Braxton (badger, a kind of mole) who watches him with overwhelming frustration at his own impotence while expressing deep concern. Chris, however, does seem to make a connection with the daughter of the head of the Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire where his parents take him for an evaluation. She too is an autistic youngster, the daughter of the director of the institute. Chris is very sensitive to sound, especially loud noises, but in adult life seems to have developed a ritual of subjecting himself to very large and loud noises for a period of time as a form of exercise that enables him to keep the presentation of his idiosyncratic behaviour under reasonable control when he is an adult.

There is a paradox, however. Chris as both a child and an adult clearly loves routine and unvaried patterns of behaviour to the point that he returns to his house in his pickup truck at the precise high speed as the garage door manages to just completely open and he stops on a dime at exactly the same spot. But why does he drive a truck?

More significantly, we know that autistic children easily, and worryingly, put themselves in harm’s way, but Chris as an adult unusually seems to have made a vocation of courting danger. It turns out that he is a superhero, but without a cape. Instead, he normally wears an accountant’s suit. But he is far superior to both Batman, who is now barely younger than I am, but he stays ageless and I do not and his civilian disguise as the very wealthy Bruce Wayne with his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Further, he is plausible for he wears no outlandish disguise and instead wears the costume of an average clerk. Further, Chris seems to be a complete loner.

Chris has other traits of an autistic child – difficulty with speech, which in adulthood is expressed by very precise and very controlled articulation of English. Chris is no Rain Man, and, in fact, the performance seems deliberately opposite to the role played by Dustin Hoffman in that now 1988 classic. Though Chris was hyperactive as a child, especially when sounds and changes set him off, and retains that trait as a super-disciplined adult, not only when he becomes engaged in murderous activities, but when, as a forensic accountant, he is stopped from completing his work in his first job examining the books of a legitimate economic enterprise, a huge business enterprise that makes robotics and prosthetics. Chris goes into a frenzy.

Chris attaches himself to specific objects, such as a dented thermos, the origins of which we only learn when we are well into the film. But mostly he is a loner and aloof, and, most of all, he is a savant like the Rain Man with a superhuman ability to manage numbers and calculations, but also a superior, and very human, ability to engage in all the close-up well choreographed violence. The character of Chris is equally differentiated from either the hapless Khan in a recent Dutch film, when the hero’s idiosyncrasies lead him to being arrested as a terrorist, and the role played by Sean Penn as Sam in an old 1998 film, I Am Sam. For what character on the various gradations of autistic character disorder (not Asperger’s Syndrome) can perform such advanced judo and brilliant sharpshooting from a mile distant?

Though one reason for the different reaction among us could have been my love for comics as distinct from the others, but my wife has no interest in comic heroes and she loved the movie. Nor can it have been the subtle associations with the eighteenth century philosopher, Christian Wolff, who, though an associate of the inventor of calculus, Leibniz, was more of a common sense ethicist than a brilliant mathematician like all the other aliases Chris used to hide who he was. Wolff certainly used the Cartesian model of mathematical deduction for doing philosophy, but he was not a mathematical genius like Descartes or Leibniz. That alone might have indicated that this alias was different.

If I were not a philosopher, especially one who once specialized in German philosophy, it would be very unlikely that I would know that Christian Wolff was the most important German philosopher on the German stage between Leibniz and Kant, who was so preeminent after him and, unlike Wolff, has never been forgotten. Though Wolff should not be, for he was a founder of both applied economics and public administration. He was a proto-accountant. So it is no surprise, rather than phony, that as the proprietor of ZZZ Accounting Services in an indistinguishable strip mall somewhere in Illinois, Chris in the movie offers a series of very mundane lessons to a farm couple about how to save money on their taxes and, thereby, save their farm. The point there is not his mathematical wizardry but his ethics.

In contrast to Kant, who tried to articulate the necessary conditions for scientific thinking, for ethics and for judgement in practical affairs, Wolff was the philosopher of the possible. Though he followed Leibniz in viewing the world as constituted by monads that never interacted, an ideal vision for one with autism, his real and most important contribution was to applied ethics with pre-established harmony viewed, not as a metaphysical presumption, but as an aspirational prerequisite for leading an ethical life. So when Chris near the beginning of the film asks the American Federal Treasury agent Ray King (played with deep conviction by J.K. Simmons) at gunpoint, after Chris had murdered eight important mafia figures in cold blood within minutes, whether he was married and had been a good father to his two boys, this is a poignant as well as suspenseful moment.

King answers yes and you will quickly learn whether he is allowed to live or die. If you were one of the rarities in the auditorium who knew who Wolff was, you would know the answer from the ethics promulgated by Christian Wolff, the philosopher. So the rarity of this glimpse into the underlying play with ethics, the history of ideas and other subtleties in the film, cannot be the critical factor in enjoying the richness of the film as my wife certainly did. For the main themes can be grasped without knowing any of these clues.

However, this does suggest that the symbolism was very important. Most viewers watching the film get the joy of grasping the clues to this film somewhere along the way as the film progresses. I personally believe the experience is actually enhanced the sooner you clue in as you wait in suspense to find out whether you are correct rather than in suspense to find out what is going to happen. But watch at the beginning as the autistic boy puts together a 500-1,000-piece puzzle in no time and then loses his composure totally when the final piece at the centre of the puzzle is missing. Watch how low that piece has fallen and see if you can identify the missing piece in the movie plot.

The film is full of rich allusions. Chris Wolff, the accountant not the philosopher, had received two very famous paintings as payment for undertaking forensic work for international criminal gangsters. Look at the painter and what has been painted. In the Jackson Pollock painting that is mounted on the ceiling of his Airstream recreational vehicle stored with his guns and cash in a storage container (why the truck?), the most important abstract painting star in America, whom Ed Harris portrayed in a biopic in 2001 playing an artist who wants to shut the world out as if he were autistic but needs contact with it in order to express his artistic passion. Why was the painting chosen not a Van Gogh? Why was the biopic not chosen of Alec Guinness playing Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth? A needed strand of comic relief could have been added. And look at the mounted piece. The Pollock is a black and white painting from the painter’s drip period, one I did not recognize, but which is reflective of both the way Chris Wolff’s character and the plot are revealed.

Without saying any more, look at the other painter and the painting which hangs on the wall. It is figurative and expressionist rather than abstract. Think about the figurative character akin to the painter rather than the one torn apart like Jackson Pollok. What is the background to the painter and who do the figures in the painting represent? Why is it an impressionist still life painting without the dynamic explosiveness of the Pollock? Think of the figurative painter’s relationship with his mother.

Though disguised as an action-thriller in a movie about white collar crime, look under the surface for the multitude of clues and pieces to the puzzle. Why does the film mirror John Nash’s mathematical equations written on blackboards and walls in A Perfect Mind, where John Nash, a Nobel laureate in economics, but a paranoid schizophrenic rather than autistic personality? The clues are everywhere and there are many, but do not expect to get more than a view on first viewing. But the more you get, the richer the cinematic experience and the deeper the understanding. For example, why is the love unrequited?

But if the film appreciation depended on putting all the pieces of the puzzle together as if all the viewers were savants, the film would not work at all. I think the problem was in the complexity of the plot rather than the bountiful symbolic clues. For it is easy to get lost otherwise without the help of the clues.

Go see the movie and see what you think. At the very least, it will be a delight to watch an accountant of all types turn into a very realistic action hero. And I believe that I have not given away any more than one bead in each of the three strings of the plot. I can assure you that, although it is a comic book action film that begins with a very bloody shootout of a bunch of mobsters within their home turf, where the identity of the shooter is not initially revealed, and although the movie is full of lot more murdered corpses in very well choreographed scenes before the movie is over, and although it is an excellent crime thriller, at its heart and core it a family film. You soon learn that Chris Wolff is not really a badass. Gavin O’Connor as the director and Bill Dubuque as the scriptwriter have done an excellent job in the pacing, the interweaving and in the series of climatic scenes.

This is not a normal review – most of mine are not anyway. But in this one, I never discussed Robert C. Treveiler as the father who misleadingly comes across initially as a villain, Anna Kendrick as the naïve and eventually love-struck Dana in the accounting department of the robotics firm, but in her own way, also a savant, Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Marybeth Medina, assistant treasury agent to Kay, Jon Bernthal as the assassin or John Lithgow as the head of the robotics company who are all individually excellent. The robotics voice on the cell phone is a particularly nice ironic touch. This is a movie about a puzzle solver that requires all members of the audience to become puzzle solvers, but at a much simpler level.

With the help of Alex Zisman


Denial – A Movie Review Part I

Denial – A Movie Review Part I


Howard Adelman

Last evening, I did not attend the community memorial to Shimon Peres. I intended to do so. But I went to an afternoon movie to see the film, Denial. Directed by Mick Jackson, using a script by the British playwright David Hare, the film was based, in turn, on a 2005 book called History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt. That volume recounted Lipstadt’s legal defence against three charges of libel allegedly contained in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. The Growing Assault on History and Memory.

The suit was brought against her by David Irving, the so-called English military historian and Nazi sympathizer whom Lipstadt had described in her 1993 book as one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. In his statement of claim against Lipstadt (as well as the publisher, Penguin Books), Irving cited Lipstadt’s descriptions of Holocaust deniers as those who, “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completely distorts the authors’ objectives. Deniers count on the fact that the vast majority of readers will not have access to the documentation or make the effort to determine how they have falsified or misconstrued information” (p. 111)

On p. 161, Lipstadt cited other scholarly descriptions of David Irving, specifically. “Scholars have described Irving as a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’ and have accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes. He is best known for his thesis that Hitler did not know about the Final Solution, an idea that scholars have dismissed. The prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper depicted Irving as a man who ‘seizes on a small and dubious part particle of’ evidence using it to dismiss far-more-substantial evidence that may not support his thesis. His work has n described as ‘closer to theology or mythology than to history,’ and he has been accused of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler. (Sunday Times, 12 July 1977)”

“An ardent admirer of the Nazi leader, Irving placed a self-portrait of Hitler over his desk, described his visit to Hitler’s mountaintop retreat as a spiritual experience, (Harris, 1986) and declared that Hitler repeatedly reached out to help the Jews. (Canadian Jewish News, 16 March 1989) In 1981 Irving, a self-described “moderate fascist,” established his own right-wing political party, founded on his belief that he was meant to be a future leader of Britain. (London Jewish Chronicle, 27 May 1983) He is an ultra-nationalist who believes that Britain has been on a steady path of decline accelerated by its misguided decision to launch a war against Nazi Germany. He has advocated that Rudolf Hess should have received the Nobel Prize for his efforts to try to stop war between Britain and Germany.10 On some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy.”

Canada played a role in the trial. I am not referring to the fact that Lipstadt, like Donald Trump, was born in Queens, but her father was Canadian, a possibly important element in the conflict between truth and lies. Lipstadt in her 1993 volume locates David Irving’s conversion into an outright Holocaust denier to his attendance at the trial of Ernst Zundel for hate speech where he testified for Zundel and, most importantly, was introduced to the Boston engineer of execution machines, Fred A. Leuchter, who had claimed that the chemicals used in the so-called gas chambers were intended to kill the lice on the corpses of Jews who had died from typhoid.

“In his foreward to his publication of the Leuchter Report, Irving wrote that there was no doubt as to Leuchter’s ‘integrity’ and ‘scrupulous methods.’ He made no mention of Leuchter’s lack of technical expertise or of the many holes that had been poked in his findings. Most important, Irving wrote, ‘Nobody likes to be swindled, still less where considerable sums of money are involved.’ Irving identified Israel as the swindler, claiming that West Germany had given it more than ninety billion deutsche marks in voluntary reparations, ‘essentially in atonement for the ‘gas chambers of Auschwitz.’ According to Irving the problem was that the latter was a myth that would ‘not die easily.’”

None of these quotes are cited in the movie that I can recall. However, the Leuchter argument introduced at the trial of Ernest Zundel in Toronto plays a crucial role in the movie, it is simplified and summarized when Lipstadt argues that the amount of cyanide needed to kill humans would be 20X the amount needed to kill lice. Further, as Tom Wilkinson in the role of Richard Rampton pointed out in court, why would one want to sanitize bodies that were to be burnt in a crematorium? And why would you build a shelter for Nazis 2.5 miles from their barracks?

After watching the movie, I lost my motivation to attend the homage to the late Shimon Peres, a man I admired greatly. I was in attendance at the Jerusalem auditorium when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on 20 November 1977 paid his historic visit to Israel and turned politics in the Middle East upside down forever. The visit, his talk and the subsequent negotiations led to the Camp David Accords and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. In 1978, Sadat would justly win a Nobel peace prize for what he had set in motion. As he had said in his speech the previous day in the Knesset, “Let us put an end to wars, let us reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth. And it is this call, which reflected the will of the Egyptian people, of the great majority of the Arab and Israeli peoples, and indeed of millions of men, women, and children around the world that you are today honoring. And these hundreds of millions will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East has responded to the hopes of mankind.”

On the stage of the Jerusalem Theatre the next day in addition to Anwar Sadat were Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Labour Party Chair, Shimon Peres. I was in Jerusalem that year as a Lady Davis Visiting Scholar at Hebrew University. The Jerusalem Theatre occasion was an opportunity to address the world press and I managed to get accredited as a journalist to get into the theatre. If you listened to the three speeches, they echoed much of what had been said the day before in the Knesset. I have not been able to locate their speeches given at the Jerusalem Theatre that day. But my recollection is very vivid – the day was so extraordinary for me.

Sadat’s speech was dramatic and very moving. The words I remember best came near the end: “Love justice and do right.” [I hope I remembered correctly and I cannot recall whether he went on to the echo the psalm and ask that right and justice be allowed to kiss.] In order for that to happen, you had to be straightforward and honest. Truth was not an end in itself, but a prerequisite to a just and peaceful world. I recall how Sadat’s speech exemplified those values.

Sadat did not try to hide the truth about the bitter enmity between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. It was not a manipulative speech, but one addressed to all Arabs and Jews as well as the rest of the people in the world to come together and win together, to win a peace instead of a war. It was also poetic as he addressed the sorrowing mothers, widows, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters for whom the ghosts of their loved ones fill the air like the raindrops in a London downpour. Use that memory, he urged, to fill your hearts with the aspiration for peace where hope transforms the world to create a new reality in which lives can blossom. For Sadat, an international agreement was not the prelude to peace, but the culmination of a radical change in attitude which requires a struggle against both the whim of indifference and egocentric personal ambition.

Sadat had chosen not to dwell on the past, not to rehearse the struggle for Arab independence from colonial rule and the perception that the Balfour Declaration and subsequent events were understood by Arabs as a continuation of colonialism that led to a history of warfare between the Arabs and Jews, between Israel and Egypt, But, while recognizing the need for Israel to be guaranteed the right to live in safety and security, he did challenge Israel to recognize the injustice to the Palestinians, to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to withdraw from East Jerusalem and to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He called on Israelis and Arabs together to make Jerusalem a free and open city for people of all faiths.

How did Begin and Peres respond to this prophet of peace? Like Sadat, Begin stressed a belief in right rather than might. However, in contrast, to Sadat’s speech, Begin focused on the past. He began with the Arab rejection of Israel’s offers to live in peace with her Arab neighbours from the very beginning of the founding of the state, only to receive the response of a military attack from three sides of the many against the few. He did not carry the history forward but went back to the history of Jews expelled from their land and sent into exile. Jews never forgot their land, even for a single day, but instead longed for and prayed for return. And they never forgot Jerusalem. But also never forgot the obligation of all religions to maintain and visit their holy sites, something that had not been allowed during the nineteen years of Arab control of the city. Then he dwelled on the Holocaust. For before Sadat addressed the Knesset the previous day, Begin had accompanied him to Yad Vashem. Never again! Israel had been built on the pledge, “Never again.”

Peres took a different course than either Sadat or Begin. Though he too believed in hope rather than cynicism, though he too knew that the past had to be recalled lest it be repeated, though he, like Begin, reiterated the commitment of all Israelis to peace, he stressed that a common past bound Arabs and Jews together and so would the aspirations for a great future, but Peres, ever the pragmatist, focused on the present. He began by recognizing Sadat’s courage in an Arab world hostile to Israel to travel to Israel and, specifically, to Jerusalem. He insisted that, in seeking peace and entering into negotiations, Israelis would accept this as a new beginning, a new start, where it would be necessary for Israelis to free themselves from pre-conceived notions.

On the other hand, Peres was brutally frank. He said that he disagreed, not with the aspirations for peace, but with much of the substance of Sadat’s opening position. But negotiations start with differences and only proceed if each party listens to the other and tries to forge a compromise. Sadat’s courage in coming to Jerusalem was proof that negotiations could now proceed on a new foundation so that with patience, a peace agreement might be forged. He then went on as a total realist, without circumlocution or deceit, to outline Israel’s opening position and then to list the actual steps that would have to be taken to achieve peace.

In the movie, Denial, the theme is not about how enemies can come together to forge peace, but how allies have to come together and make compromises in a peaceful way in order to expand the realm of peace and justice. That is where the dramatic tension is, not between the liar and falsifier versus those concerned with truth. In that case, there is no room for compromise, but one side must win.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Parshat Matot: Numbers 31-36 – Justice

Parshat Matot: Numbers 31-36 – Justice


Howard Adelman

Eye in the Sky is a 2015 British thriller that applies the laws and ethics of just war theory to drone warfare. Whether in the ceilings of gambling casinos or in weather helicopters above our cities, whether the pictures are taken by satellites flying above the earth or by tiny robotic flies entering a house through a window left ajar, these ubiquitous surveillance cameras are now omniscient and omnipresent. In the Torah, God is the eye in the sky who can attend even to the pecking of a tiny sparrow.

One can, of course, be absorbed in this all-pervasive point of view and the technology or theology behind it. But one can also find it captivating and totally absorbing to use the eye in the sky to reveal dilemmas of justice in the lives of humans. The latter is the real purpose of the 2015 movie and of this week’s Torah portion.

In the movie, surveillance cameras from satellites zero in on a house in Eastview, the Somali section of Nairobi and also enter in from within the house using a surveillance camera is a mechanical flying insect. I had problems personally with the scene being placed in Eastview since, though I have not been back to Nairobi since the real rise of fanatic Islam began to spread all over the world in this century, I found it hard to believe that the Kenyan army would permit armed fanatics to control the streets and entry to a villa in the Somali part of Nairobi. But the movie quickly made me suspend such sources of disbelief. For the issue was credibility, not truth. The issue was a moral and legal issue and not the empirical reality of the dilemma. The situation merely needed to be plausible; it did not need to be credible.

The film opens with a Somali Muslim father who works repairing bicycles. He has made a hula hoop for his ten-year-old (???) daughter who is delighted by her present. Her father is also pleased and overjoyed watching his daughter play – that is, until a strict Muslim enters the courtyard to redeem his repaired bike and remonstrates the daughter and the father for allowing his daughter to play in such a provocative way – the swinging of hips, one presumes. This is important because we can identify with the daughter forced to conform in her play to a very strict interpretation of Sharia law, a stricture to which her own father agrees given the intimidating environment in which they supposedly live.

The girl will be the focus of our concern throughout the movie as Hawkeye missiles are to be shot at a house in which there are two leading terrorists and, as a bonus, two martyrs preparing to blow themselves up and sacrifice themselves for their fanatical belief in Islam. The young girl is selling her mother’s baked bread outside the walls of the compound that is being targeted. She is the potential and likely collateral damage with which the military officers concerned with military urgency are wrestling as they try to take advantage of a rare opportunity. The Attorney General and lawyers from the justice department are there as well, focused on the interpretation of international law concerning the conduct of war. There are also politicians concerned with the issue of how the collateral damage of the death of the young girl will be viewed by the media, quite aside from the importance of military action even for humanitarian reasons. To top it all off, there is a holdout moralist who, in addition to her concern with the perception of the public, goes beyond that and finds the potential killing of a girl to be beyond the pale, even when the targets are terrorists and the threat is imminent.

Key issues of law and morality, military necessity and moral considerations, weigh on contemporary society in the context of warfare. So too in the Torah. Ethical questions always arise in such life-and-death situations. However, in the film and in the Torah, the ethical outcomes are radically at odds. In the movie as the urgency of this situation grows, ethical necessity dictates a willingness to sacrifice the innocent daughter of a Somali bicycle repair man in the interest of advancing the war against radical Islam. From the legal perspective, once proper legal procedures have been followed and the responsible authorities authorize the decision, the lawyers from the justice department advising on the law applied to the terms of engagement can be persuaded to authorize an action in the name of military necessity.

But the politicians take longer since the perception of how the action will be weighed, how the death of one girl will be weighed on the scales of justice, against the likely but still only possible large number of deaths from the vest bombs of the fanatics weigh heavily. And then there is the moralist. She will never be persuaded that the possible loss of the life of one young girl by a deliberate action with knowledge aforethought should not outweigh the highly probable but still uncertain deaths of many more sometime in the very near future. The tension of the movie is built around these conflicts.

Of course, this is a totally false picture of the doctrine of just war and the terms of military engagement applied to such a situation, for this is an open and shut case militarily, legally, politically and even morally. The sacrifice would certainly be permitted under the laws of necessity and proportionality, under the laws of proper authority and procedural regularity of just war theory. But, after all, this is a Hollywood film even if made by the Brits. For though the decision is British, the implementers are Americans. It helps that the British military officers are played by Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman to allow even me to set aside my incredulity at the overt manipulation of my emotions for such a distorted moral dilemma. I know better, but I was totally sucked in. Aaron Paul, the pilot of the drone, may have tears in his eyes, but I actually wept as I, in my mind, berated the legalists, the weak-kneed politicians and the ideological moralists who stood in the way of military necessity and a just decision – with one small qualifier which I will not reveal lest it spoil the movie for those who have not seen it and may want to.

What has this all to do with this week’s Torah portion? Well the latter is also all about justice, even though the norms of justice are totally at odds. They are the other extreme of the situation in the film cast in the context of political and moral correctness which is portrayed as such a heavy handicap on the military carrying out its duties of protection. Look at the series of moral issues raised in chapters 32-37 of Numbers:
1. With the background of Jephthah and the insistence that he must keep his vow to sacrifice his daughter because he did make the vow to sacrifice the first one who greeted him if he achieved military victory, chapter 30 explores the same issue from the perspective of the daughter, that is whether she was obligated to follow through on the vow to carry out the terms of the contract made by her father; chapter 30 takes up that issue and permits reversion of the vow under very specific patriarchal conditions – the father (or the husband if she is now living in his house) hears the vow and immediately takes action to revoke it; unlike Jephthah’s vow that he alleged could not be reversed, the vow in such circumstances can be revoked.

2. The decimation of all the Midianites, men, women and children, with the exception of female children who have not reached the age of sexual maturity – like the girl in the movie; this genocide is not only permitted, but authorized by God. On what spurious grounds? Because Balaam blessed rather than cursed the Israelites? The real reason is given since the men, including all male children, had already been slaughtered. Moses became angry that mature women had been spared for, lest we forget, the real outcome of Balaam’s blessing was that he, with his blessing, cursed the Israelites by allowing cohabitation between Israelite men and Midianite women. Moses insisted that these mature women had to be killed as well. According to Rashi, God authorized such action lest the preservation of his chosen people be endangered by ethnic intermixing, yet Moses himself was married to a Midianite woman and, as I have said many times before, King David would descend from the loins of one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the Moabite Ruth.

3. The issue of what plunder was acceptable, under what conditions and how it was to be justly apportioned between the military and civilians, between the priestly class and other civilians. (I wanted to write a separate commentary on this, but not enough space and time.)

4. The next issue was the just allocation of lands to the different tribes of Israel and the lands to be set aside for the priestly class.

5. The fixed boundaries of the nation and the setting up of a sufficient number of cities of refugee (6) within that land for unintended murders (what we now call manslaughter) from family members who would otherwise seek and be entitled to vengeance.

6. The restrictions preventing the daughters of Tzelafchad from marrying outside even their tribe when there were no male heirs lest the lands they inherit be allocated to another tribe upon their father’s death since there was no surviving male heir.

The Torah in this section, with God’s imprimatur, sanctions genocide and ethnic cleansing, never mind when it is moral and proper to allow an innocent young girl to be sacrificed is collateral damage in an operation driven by military necessity. This is the other extreme of the moral universe than the one presented in Eye in the Sky. Other than a universe totally free of moral and legal constraints, this is about as close as you can get to a totally morally debased world portrayed as belonging to a moral and legal worldview and sanctioned, indeed instructed, by God.

One can only hand one’s head in shame and offer retrospective apologies to the Midianites (and the Amorites).

I will end here because I have to prepare to be a witness at a wedding of a couple who are Seventh Day Adventists. Yesterday afternoon I spent with a former graduate student who now directs a unique program in diversity studies in an American university and his wife chairs another program at a different nearby university. They also had their grandson with them whom we made an effort not to become collateral damage to a discussion about intolerance and Donald Trump.

There are so many times I feel so blessed to live in the present, when diversity is so valued and in a country like Canada that has made such a value central to its very being.

Ten International Film Previews

1. Coming Home (Chinese)
2. You Call It Passion (Korean)
3. A Decent Engagement (Indian)
4. A Separation (Iranian)
5. Mustang (Turkish)
6. Footnote (Israeli)
7. The Source (French about North Africa)
8. Poli Opposti (Italian)
9. Barbara (German about East Germany)
10. The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (French)

Ten International Film Previews


Howard Adelman

These are not reviews per se, but sketches and reflections on what these films may say about the world today and one country in that world. They are not representative of their country. Their selection depended on films that I have watched in the last week, mainly on the flight home from Israel. The list excludes the Hungarian film, Son of Saul, on which I wrote three blogs. The compilation is not comprehensive either – no Russian films, no Latin American films and no films from Black Africa. The order of the previews is arbitrary, simply traveling from east to west and then south to north.

Coming Home (China)

First shown at Cannes in 2014, the title of this film in Chinese literally translates as The Return, a name that makes far more sense in terms of the plot and theme. For the film is about a professor, Lu Yanshi (Lu played by Chen Daoming), sent away to a “re-education” camp during the Cultural Revolution who returns twice to his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu played by Gong Li) and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina. [I know that referring to Lu – the husband – and Yu – the wife – can be very confusing; it was while watching the movie, at least for the first half hour. But that is how they refer to one another.] The first time when he escapes, his family is intact, but he is re-arrested when he tries to meet his wife. He returns a second time when he is rehabilitated years later. In neither case does he come home, for the first time he cannot reach home and the second time there is no home to come to; intervening events have destroyed “home” in any meaningful sense except the physical.

The film is superbly acted, but it is far more than a domestic drama or even an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. The film is an allegory of recognition. In fact, Yanshi, the name of the professor, literally means “how to recognize” in both Cantonese and Mandarin. But the term is more often associated with passionate romance, definitely not the passion of the next film discussed. Yet this is a film of passionate romance on the deepest level.

When the professor first returns and encounters his daughter whom he has not seen in over ten years – he was arrested when she was four years old – she does not recognize him as her father or her responsibilities to him. Ironically, this loyal child of two revolutions – a communist and a cultural one – only knows personal ambition. As a direct result of this failure of recognition, and the trauma of a blackmail Yu was forced to endure, Lu’s wife will suffer amnesia and no longer recognizes her husband when he returns a second time. The movie offers an allegory that suggests that it is one thing for greed, blind ambition and power mongering behind a Cultural Revolution to produce an authoritarian and repressive state. It is perhaps even worse when contemporary China enters a state of amnesia about that period creating a double calamity for the victims.
You Call It Passion (Korea)

Newspaper stories can be about publishers and the pursuit of power, such as Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, or about juxtaposing a journalist’s ethos of setting truth against power by covering the tale of two very different but dedicated, determined and diligent journalists (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) trying to uncover the Watergate scandal. Or it can be about a hard bitten reporter who turns out to be a very good detective as James Stewart did in Call Northside 777. Newspapers used to be excellent backdrops for interweaving glamour and intrigue, money and power, ambition and ethics. This is no longer the case as newspapers struggle to stay alive in the world of the new media. This tale of the tabloid press is a little bit of all of these themes, but never seems to focus on any of them as it narrates the tale of a very bright but innocent newspaper intern, Do Ra-hee (Park Bo-young) who joins the workforce of a very large, likely pulp, newspaper in the entertainment section that is more about scooping for scandals than it is about allowing readers to get greater insight into the artists and entertainers in Seoul.

Though the intern is a woman who looks like a teenager to a North American, this is no weak feminist track like Front Page Woman. The movie is about getting the scoop on a famous young male actor, but as a cross between the reporter as detective as well as one torn by ethical concerns when offered material by “a reliable source” that could destroy a career but enormously advance that of the young reporter. I initially thought the movie was going to be a contemporary Korean remake of the classic Hollywood tale It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but this time with a young female rather than male reporter trying to get the goods on a celebrity. But the closest this movie gets to the hard bitten reporter is the entertainment editor, Ha Jae-kwan (Jung Jae-young), who yells at his journalists to put passion into their jobs and make passion what their jobs are about. But the movie is really about saving their own jobs by uncovering economic skulduggery. The film is a lesson in lack of direction where a movie fails to decide at the core what it is about. Neither comedy nor romance, neither exposé nor ethical drama, neither a poem to a journalist’s passion for truth nor deconstruction of an editor’s drive to get a scoop while being a bit of both of the latter, the movie is a lightweight addition to the genre of newspaper movies.

A Decent Engagement (India)

India makes excellent movies, from Bollywood entertainment to serious court room films about justice, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. This is clearly not one of them. Put an American hunk into an Indian setting where he is finally to meet the love of his life in a traditional arranged marriage and you have the basic elements of tension and conflict, comedy and romance. But not one of them is in evidence here. The situations are clichés. The script is terrible. The film is not helped when the lead cannot decide whether he is mentally challenged or an innocent abroad or, more accurately, an American with the patina of an Indian in Delhi. As soon as the lead opens his mouth, we learn that he cannot act. The best part of the movie is the plethora of scenes of Indian life that serve as fillers to a threadbare script, but also serve as a respite from a disastrous movie.

A Separation (Iran)

Iran has wonderful directors and actors. In a country with a built-in stress between creativity and repressive control, especially under the auspices of religious law, the opportunities for exciting and great films certainly exist, even if the conditions for exploiting the opportunities are extremely difficult. Asghar Farhadi’s movie walks that line with a great sense of balance. It is a simple courtroom drama about the unintended consequences of competing but legitimate personal interests and priorities clashing where both truth and a hierarchy of norms are both very unsettled in spite of the claims of Sharia law to have a monopoly on both.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) may love one another, but Nader is attached to his father who suffers from dementia while Simin wants to ensure that their daughter has a future. Thus, past and future clash in the present. And the film is greatest in showing that there are no easy answers as two excellent actors pursue that task.

Mustang (Turkey)

Set in a small remote agricultural village far from Istanbul, Mustang is an absolutely wonderful film. There is no difficulty in determining on which side of the modernity-tradition divide the female director (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) falls, as five very close sisters grow up in the home of their aunt and uncle who fall back on protection and policing when the first threat appears on the horizon to the couple’s reputation. The girls, all with a great sense of joie to vivre that is wonderfully portrayed and at all times infectious, is viewed from the perspective of and also driven mostly by the youngest, a mustang determined not to be tamed.

The film begins with the will to live and celebrates life’s joyful, comedic and happy moments, but gradually, and very gradually, descends into claustrophobia in a house made into a prison for confining the human spirit before the plot turns to loss, the greatest being the camaraderie among the five girls, and eventual tragedy. The movie is touching without in any way being cloying, funny without being farcical, and horrific without any of the usual exposure to gross torture. And though clearly on the side of freedom and feminism, the movie somehow manages not to be didactic. Unlike the Indian film above, all the beautiful cinematography of landscape and life are integral to the flow of the film.

Footnote (Israel)

This is one film I did not see in the last five days. But not for lack of trying. Since I was flying from Israel, I was looking forward to watching one of the many excellent Israeli films. I could speculate why I could not find one, but instead I will simply add a footnote to an excellent 2012 Israeli film about both the love and the competition between a father and a son who happen to be in the same realm of scholarship. But there is a difference. The father is engaged in pilpul, a minute engagement in teasing out inconsistencies and insights from small passages in the Talmud. The son, by contrast, is a populizer of Judaism and a public intellectual instead of probing into the minutiae of scholarship.

I loved the movie, not simply because it was about the real tension I experience between the minutiae of scholarship and the desire to communicate to a larger audience, but because the movie was about the fact that neither aspiration can substitute for love within the family, and especially between father and son. To do so with an acute comic sense is masterful. The brilliant hilarious scene of s cluster of great scholars crowded into a tiny office to resolve a dispute offers the humorous side of Israel, precisely because it exemplifies what is so maddening and tragic about the wonderful country.

The Source (France about North Africa)

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata provides the template for this contemporary version of women in a small village using a sexual strike to force their underemployed men to undertake work that can ease the burden of their overworked and treacherous effort at carrying water back from a well. Instead of striking for peace in opposition to the Peloponnesian War, these North African women declare a sexual war to overcome the resignation to and backwardness of crippling tradition. Like the Turkish movie above, Mustang, the setting is in a small remote village. Like Mustang, the film flirts with the comedic against a backdrop of hardship, but that is physical as much as it is moral. Both films are about women in motion that brings forth the poetry of that action.

In this film, an outsider Leila (Leila Bekhti) is married to a village teacher. Rather than the youngest daughter of a family acting as the spur to upset the settled applecart because there is neither a road nor a cart to bring the water from the village well, Leila organizes the protest against assigning women to carrying water hanging from a pole slung across the backs of the women, including pregnant ones. The result of the current obsolete system leads to a disproportionate number of miscarriages and deaths of children. Unlike the Turkish film, and unlike Turkey itself these days, Radu Mihaileanu imbues his movie with love and hope rather than tragedy and despair.

Poli Opposti (Italy)

This movie is a sophisticated contemporary comedy set in a thoroughly modern world, not only one where sexual repression has been removed, but where the women have become the hard bitten, cold and insensitive ball breakers, and the men have been transposed into sensitive souls. Often funny, always very well acted, this traditional version of a comedy of opposites that attract and fall in love, is conceived in an inverted mode. It is a delight to watch precisely because credibility is not a stake. The female warrior divorce lawyer (Sarah Feiberbaum) and her son are saved from being cast into the cold of an unloving world by a sensitive human relations counsellor (Luca Argentero) who believes in pushing cooperation and dialogue rather than exacerbating already deep divisions. If Lysistrata informed The Source, the sophisticated comedies of traditional Hollywood provide the template for this movie, but it is updated by reversing the archetypal male and female roles.

Barbara (German about East Germany)

The story portrayed in Coming Home of abuse by political authorities in China was mirrored by events in East Germany. But Barbara is a film about voyeurism rather than intimate love in the face of oppression. Nina Hoss plays a brilliant physician, not sent to a re-education camp, but to the boonies because she applied for an exit visa. Lu Yanshi just wanted to return home. Barbara just wants to get out. Escape, not unlike that of Huckleberry Finn, a book she reads to a patient and escapee she is protecting. But Barbara had become hardened, not by male abandonment, but by male domination and real repression. She smokes heavily and smiles rarely. But when she does, she lights up the screen.

Though a failure in trust imbues both Coming Home and Barbara with an enormous degree of tension, it is all the more oppressive in Barbara because it appears to be so total and comprehensive leaving very little room for humanity and empathy. Yu in Coming Home develops cold and expressionless eyes, but they are sometimes awakened and we delight in the joy and sensitivity of those rare occasions. The same look, however, in the landlady in Barbara is menacing rather than simply vacant. Both films record the devastating effects of state oppression with great attention to detail, but the regime of surveillance, the informers in East Germany, are omnipresent and anonymous. In the love story of Lu and Yu, the informers are intimates and the party secretary is portrayed in a sympathetic way. East Germany and Stasi reached a dead end; If Coming Home is any indication, there is some hope that China can overcome or get around oppression because, after the Cultural Revolution, room has been made for inter-human sensitivity and empathy even as the government retains its iron grip on society in general and the country suffers from collective amnesia.

However, excellent films can emerge from the worst conditions.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (France)

Two sisters, one glamorous, cold and self-serving, Iris (Emmanuelle Béart), the other, Joséphine (Julie Depardieu), mousy, intellectual and self-effacing, one oblivious to the needs of her son, the other sensitive but often clumsy in dealing with the needs of her two daughters, especially the older one who is so caught up in the attraction of the glitter of her aunt, provide the core of this story of recognition both on the inter-personal and collective level but from a radically different standpoint than Coming Home. In Yellow Eyes, the deceit is obvious and eventually self-destructive. That is why it is a comedy. In Coming Home, the failure of recognition becomes buried deep in the broken families resulting from the Cultural Revolution.

The acting is brilliant as is the direction by Cécile Telerman. One of the greatest rewards in watching foreign as well as American films is observing women come into their own as great directors. When the variety of directors throws light, not only on the screen, but on and into the world in which we live, the rewards are enormous.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Son of Saul III

Son of Saul III


Howard Adelman

Three blogs on the same film! What more is there to say? I begin with one tardy response that I received after the second blog was sent out.

I imagine that you waited so long to see Son of Saul for the same reason I did. It seemed inconceivable that the film industry would have anything ne to say about the Holocaust; why throw myself into a needless depression? What is there to be said that hasn’t been said already? I finally saw it at the TIFF a while after it opened and found that it took us into a new layer of evil and raised new questions.
Son of Saul takes us into the horror that other films only allude to – the engine room of the CAPOs and SonderKommando, the gas chambers themselves, the heart of darkness, and the diabolical method of forcing Jews to be collaborators in their own destruction.

If I were to write a philosophical essay on Son of Saul, I would stress two themes.
1. The director’s reversal of Arendt’s” banality of evil”. Arendt, who invented this concept, uses it (wrongly, I believe) to dehumanize the perpetrators. In Son of Saul, it is the victims who are engulfed in it. Saul goes through his routines as though he were a factory labourer. He seems slightly bored, shoving bodies into gas chambers and then retrieving them. The perpetrators, on the other hand, are normal brutes, sadists and tyrants. No profundities are necessary to describe them.
2. He illustrates the concept of resistance, as the determination to rescue the human from the anti-human This is the meaning of the main story line of the film, Saul’s determination to give his son a proper burial. a concept that is at the heart of Emil Fackenheim’s account of the Holocaust. Your German correspondent illustrates these moments of resistance very beautifully. But there is an ambiguity. He chooses his act of spiritual resistance against the possibility of joining a scheme of armed resistance. What are we to make of this?
Much to think about.

This comment is in line with the first pro-humanism interpretation of the film that I sent out by my Hungarian correspondent currently living in Germany, but probes the issue on a deeper, more philosophical level. Second, it assumes that the boy was Saul’s real son. Is there a connection between taking the son to be a constructed fantasy and a pessimistic perspective on the assertion of humanity in the face of utility versus the assumption of a real son and viewing the film as a statement of hope for the human spirit?

Before probing both those questions, I now want to include a series of reviews of the film in Germany, most viewing the movie as kitsch rather than a great piece of art. Again, these were forwarded to me by my Hungarian reader living in Germany.

Népszabadság is a major left-leaning Hungarian newspaper, 50% owned by Bertelsmann AG (Germany). In its online version I found an article written in Hungarian by Hanna Ongierth, published March 14, 2016, that summarizes some of the write-ups by critics of major German newspapers about the movie Son of Saul. I do not have time to read all the original articles she is summarizing here, but I thought you might be interested in learning what the leading media in Germany wrote about the movie, so I translated it for you. At the end of my translation of her article I included links to the original write-ups, if someone wants to read them. The title of her article, a quote from one of the write-ups, summarizes the overall judgement of German critics:

“The Son of Saul: nauseating”

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning film, The Son of Saul, opened March 10 in Germany. It has been hotly anticipated; every major newspaper wrote about it. They did not mince words: “lager-kitsch”, “ghost train”, “pornography” were some of the opinions it received. But there was also a critic who considered it a “poignantly great work of art”.

Verena Lueken, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung film critic, wore a darkly gleaming gray suit talking about the film on the paper’s online video. Her outfit was to underline her sharp features and stern judgment. Whenever she likes a movie, she wears bright colours. In an unwavering tone, she explained the traditional manner Holocaust themes are to be dealt with. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoa issued a tacit ban on the pictorial representations of death camps. And since this circle of fire has not faded at all during the last 30 years, Auschwitz-Birkenau is still not to serve as a venue for fictional works.

“László Nemes is trying to be awfully clever” – Lueken interprets the imagery of Son of Saul – “by showing and not showing things explicitly. Nauseating: Exploitative violence, pornography” – she sputters her curses darkly. “Lurid – all just calculated for effect,” she says. In the columns of her paper, she calls the director an arrogant creep, and this because he knows that he is touching on taboos, but decides not to knock them down. The Son of Saul fuels the same lies as Schindler’s List when it claims that, even in horror, there is room for humanity, and in hell for dignity, and that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria. This one is the same old lager-kitsch as Steven Spielberg’s film. But at least – Geza Röhrig is a great actor.

Jan Schulz Ojala, the Tagesspiegel critic would agree with those who say it would have been better for Nemes to shoot a movie about the Battle at the Don River [the Hungarian army suffered terrible losses on behalf of Germany due to the overwhelming power of the Soviets in 1942-43; BG], or anything else, as long as he left the Holocaust well alone. Ojala’s greatest problem is not that he does not think The Son of Saul is a good movie, but that Claude Lanzmann thinks it is so. “This movie is nothing but a series of dramatic scenes, typical for an action movie – otherwise it is an average thriller. Not like the Shoah, where the silences between the phrases uttered by the survivors are the most dramatic. In comparison, The Son of Saul is like a ghost train in an amusement park – by the end of the ride, the shivers stop.

According to Susan Vahabzadehnek, the Süddeutsche Zeitung critic, taking a quick ride through the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp sitting in your comfy armchair is like getting your picture taken with the starving children of Africa on a cruise. The viewer cannot be more than a rubbernecking bystander – a thoroughly passive tourist. Therefore, The Son of Saul is no more than a pornography of pain. Besides the horrors of the KZ are impossible to portray, so why even try it?

The Feuilleton editor of Die Welt, Elmar Krekeler has a wholly different opinion. He intensely dislikes the 107 minutes spent on watching the movie. Not because he does not consider it a good movie. But it hurts as much as to even think about it as it was painful to watch it. He disagrees with the label “ghost train” as on that he would love to take another ride. This film, however, engulfed and crushed him. And in the end it vomited him out as a different person. “We all should watch it – he writes – so that we know our task: to shape the world in such a way that there is no need in it for such works as The Son of Saul “.

“How can one demand realism from a feature film? And, anyway, what’s the point of comparing it to a documentary film?”- asks Hannah Pilarczyk, in Spiegel Online. Rather, one should ask whether The Son of Saul adds anything new to the cinematic narrative built around the Holocaust. “It certainly does!” she writes, by breaking the well-known cliché of the “passive Jew” and by complementing the best possible way the existing series of works. In her view, it would be a big mistake to label it as “lager-kitsch” and then yet another time end up with Lanzmann’s work as the only solution.

Anti-Schindler’s List
Claude Lanzmann, the now 90-year-old French director, created the alpha and omega of Holocaust films in 1985, the Shoa. In his nine-and-a-half-hour long work, he let survivors talk, showing locations; however, none of the corpses. “No; I did not use archival materials. Firstly, because this sort of thing is not my thing, and, secondly, because such materials do not exist. And if they did, and I had stumbled upon them, I would have burned them,” he declared in 1994 in Le Monde. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List is a feature film, considered by many as the “Hollywoodification” of the Holocaust. Lanzmann has also had a low opinion of him; he thought Spielberg’s work “trivialized the Jewish tragedy”. But Lanzmann is pleased to note that Nemes “does not try to show death”. Although Lanzmann missed the first 20 minutes of the movie, yet he thinks of it as the “anti-Schindler’s List,” and he is satisfied that “the director did not want to put the Holocaust on the screen, just the short story of the Sonderkommando.”

Original articles:
Spiegel online:

So there you have it. Is the film an anti-Schindler anti-Hollywood movie that does not trivialize the Holocaust because it does not focus on death, or does it do the very opposite of Lanzmann’s dictum by tacitly breaking the ban on the pictorial representations of death? Does it break the cliché of the “passive Jew,” invert Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” and engulf and crush you so that you emerge after watching it a different person.? Or, on the other hand, is the film just an average thriller based on a series of dramatic scenes like an action movie, a nauseating and lurid film of violence as an exercise in exploiting the pornography of pain, that, even in horror, claims that there is room in hell for humanity and dignity? Is the movie an exercise in lager-kitsch expressing the shallow sentiment that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria? Or is the film great art because it can elicit such a wide variety of reactions?

I think the movie is indeed a great piece of art, but not because there are so many varied and often opposite reactions. It does NOT deal with shallow sentiment, and if some find that it expresses the view than even in hell there can be human dignity, this is far from shallow sentimentality. I myself thought the film had as dour a view about the world as the actor/poet who plays Saul, that in a crushing authoritarian environment of mass murder, rebellion, witnessing and escaping into a fantasy longing for religious nostalgia in trying even to giver youthful hope a decent burial, all may be of equal value and equally futile as different exercises in resistance.

But the film is definitely not lurid; it is not a thriller – I was never on the edge of my seat and there were none of the superbly choreographed crash scenes of cheating death that make good action films a thrill to watch. The message is the reverse. Death cannot be cheated. The film is not about the pornography of pain. It is not pornographic or voyeuristic at all, for it is through Saul’s blank and stolid vision that we see what takes place as the camera focuses in close-ups on him or follows him around. I agree with Lanzmann that the film avoids the pornography of death. I can differ from some critics, but respect them. Other critics are just stupid.

I disagree with the conviction that the film breaks the stereotype of the passive Jew, not because that is not a theme in the film, but because it is in a minor key. The resistance is there, but is not the focus of the movie. The film certainly breaks the cliché about the Sonderkommando as willing, selfish opportunistic collaborators of the Nazis. In that sense, my reader is entirely correct. For that alone, the film will be an important addition to the Holocaust genre.

The movie does certainly overturn a major theme of Hannah Arendt, an idol of my young intellectual life, her view of the “banality of evil” when in the Eichmann trial she totally and naively bought into Eichmann’s planned posturing that he was just a normal bureaucrat carrying out orders. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” For Arendt, evil was considered banal because it was carried out by normal individuals, “people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In the film, though mainly background figures, except in the scene of the Nazi doctors watching as another Nazi officer taunts and ridicules dancing at a Jewish wedding, Nazis are brutes and enforcers, bullies and murderers. Nazis are not ordinary in the least.

Evil is banal, not because it is carried out by ordinary people rather than brutes, but because such extraordinary evil reduces life to such a banal level – questing for a piece of bread and becoming to a greater and greater degrees totally banal, an automaton, in the process. It is not that Eichmann was “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” but that totalitarianism reduces life to obedience. While Arendt claimed that, “normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together” she was purveying, not a great insight, but utter nonsense. The ultimate goal of atrocities is to make that realm of atrocity the norm.

The film is, in some sense, a beacon of hope because the Nazis never succeeded in destroying the capacity to think, to decide, to act, whether as preservers of the record of hostilities, resisters to it or even wanting to resurrect a ritual from which the protagonist himself had become detached, but one that required that life always be respected and dignified. Some sort of Christian forgiveness based on Arendt’s reading of St. Augustine was not “the key to action and freedom.” The resisters, those committed to witnessing or Saul obsessed with at least one proper ritual burial, all fought against their oppressors in different ways and did not forgive them. When Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1958 book The Human Condition, that it was “far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think,” the film demonstrates the opposite to be the case. Under conditions of tyranny, it is virtually impossible to engage in effective action, but the effort is necessary as is the exercise of thought.

Son of Saul is a love story of a conscripted Sonderkommando forced to do what is most abhorrent, more abhorrent than death itself and doomed as well to end up in death after four months of forced labour. Love is not a stranger, as Arendt wrote, a destructive force in partnership with hatred, but a source of opposition to hate and tyranny. We did not need the Nazis to understand the truly radical nature of evil. It has been ever present in the history of humanity. To create a love story in the midst of such evil is a work of great art.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Son of Saul II

Son of Saul II


Howard Adelman

AGAIN WARNING: Only read this blog, at least after the first page or so, either after you have seen the film or after you have decided never to see it.

Yesterday, I wrote about a Hungarian film called Son of Saul that won reams of awards, including being recognized as Best Foreign Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. I noted that almost all my friends and family, who are fascinated by movies and love the genre of art, had not seen it. I myself had avoided seeing the movie and only dared to watch it in a most inhospitable place for viewing a serious movie, but, on the other hand, a very safe place for a film like this.

I also printed one excellent response of a Hungarian reader of my blog who lives in Germany. She praised its camera work with its shallow and very narrow focus of vision that forces us to identify with the experiences of the Sonderkommando who is at the centre of the film who was surrounded by a cacophony of sounds where indecipherability enhanced the film’s narrow and apparently shallow focus that also put all the horrors in the background. The design of the crematorium at Auschwitz was carried out by a foremost expert, László Raik, who worked on the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Hungarian exhibit.

It was an authentic film. The lead actor and direction received enormous praise from critics. Yet, this morning, I looked up some statistics. This prize-winning extraordinary movie only took in less than $US 8 million overall. Since the movie was only released by Sony Pictures on 18 December to be eligible for the awards season, perhaps taking in only $1,777,043 in domestic attendance in 2015 could be explained. The movie only took in $37,930 its first weekend in spite of advance raves and the awards it had already won.

The low attendance cannot be explained by the fact that it was a foreign film since, in comparison to all the films in that class, the movie ranked 231st in box office returns and among all genres of films, as one of the best films ever made, it ranked 6,474 in terms of box office receipts. After reaping all its awards and the publicity around them, the movie has barely recovered its production costs – which were very low for a film of this scope – and its distribution costs. A million dollars of that return came from Hungary. Son of Saul has been Hungary’s highest grossing film. Inexplicably, almost a half million came in from each of Spain and Great Britain. Why the discrepancy between the quality of the film and the relatively low attendance?

Though the box office returns were relatively small for such an extraordinary film, the host of accolades were very numerous. Claude Lanzmann of Shoah fame raved about the film as did many critics and intellectuals. I knew a great deal of this, yet waited until this past weekend to watch it, and watched it out of desperation for a good film and in an atmosphere most conducive to repressing one’s feeling and sensibilities. Why had I waited so long? My conclusion – in late life I have succumbed to an overall propensity of contemporary North American society of guarding my sensibilities. The general pattern of children being protected by their parents, from hearing or seeing hurtful things, has influenced my own choices, as much as I criticize that over-protection.

I am especially pleased that I shared my thoughts with readers. Because I did receive a relatively large number of responses. I have selected a few below.

We saw the film in one of the repertory houses on Mt Pleasant some time ago. I think it managed to capture the hellish atmosphere that must have prevailed in the death camps, but it left unresolved issues that should have been faced, the most important being why it was so important to the central character to find a rabbi, and why he took the boy’s corpse along on the escape attempt. We left the theatre feeling that it was a very moving and significant piece of art, but we were also rather baffled by it.

Since this was the first response, I replied, “So am I.” However, I am not any longer. See below.

Dear Howard: I was intrigued by the movie and also watched it on the plane, from Toronto to Brussels, now 4 days ago. I was hesitant, because of the subject and the setting, but went for it. Watching movies on a plane, however imperfect, is often particularly emotionally intense, and this was certainly the case with this movie. I missed much of the sound (my hearing is already bad so even worse in a plane), so I couldn’t sufficiently appreciate the impact of the sound described in the excellent review below. The imagery was obviously also reduced to a very basic level. But what I saw (in combination with the little I heard) was overwhelming. I definitely want to see it again in better circumstances. The review you sent is excellent. One of the intriguing aspects for me was how the viewer and most of his co-sonderkommandos remain sympathetic to Saul and his desire to provide a ritual burial, even if they are often irritated and at times understandably angry even about the impact of his obsession on others who try to survive (one person is likely even killed as a direct result of his actions). This sympathy by his co-prisoners is even more remarkable since they themselves have put aside most of their human empathy in their daily actions, just to be able to survive the place and do what they are forced to do. In the horror and the unspeakable inhumanity of the place, a place worse than hell where an instinctive desire for survival seems the only driving force and any idea of an equitable and respectable God seems absurd, people still appreciate the meaningfulness of a father wanting to perform a religious ritual with the body of his son (or whoever it is). How strange it may seem at times, it also is a small sign of remaining humanity and hope…

I will definitely watch this movie again, hopefully at the TIFF. I did have a certain discomfort watching this type of movie in the banal setting of a plane…

Thanks for sharing this review.

This respondent agreed with my original reader whose response I reprinted yesterday who insisted that the film offered a sense of hope. In this response, “people still appreciate the meaningfulness of a father wanting to perform a religious ritual with the body of his son (or whomever it is).”

I did receive an answer which dealt with my puzzlement.

I agree this unwatchable movie is a must-watch. By that I mean that I find it difficult to recommend that people be traumatized (or for most Jews, re-traumatized) by this brilliantly, horrifyingly immersive Holocaust story.

That Saul’s insistence on treating the corpse of this boy with some measure of respect, of humanity, is patently irrational in their context encapsulates what the Nobel committee expressed in its award of the 2002 prize to Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, himself an Auschwitz survivor, for depicting “the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” (But don’t all successful depictions of the Holocaust focus on the individual experience? Is it not the only way our poor minds can approach the otherwise unencompassable. Six million paper clips don’t do it. We need Anne Frank and Saul Auslinger.) [Typo: the writer meant Ausländer.]

In the world in which Primo Levi’s guard explained “here there is no why” it seems out of place to question an inmate’s protest, no matter in what form, no matter how futile. Anything he does that resists his reduction to no more than a beast in a slaughterhouse is understandable.

The answer, simply put, is that it does not matter whether one organizes a revolt, tries to document and communicate what is going on, or obsessively seeks to bury one body of a boy in accordance with Jewish ritual. In such a totalitarian extermination system, all efforts at resistance and establishing a small degree of humanity end up being futile. I myself would, I hope, have opted for rebellion, but the brilliance of the film is that it shows that, even when all options are futile, the respect for choosing any of them, including going to great lengths to bury a Jewish boy whom you do not know in accordance with religious requirements and, in so doing, compromising both the rebellion and the effort to serve as witnesses, is the most important.

That very insightful reader also sent me two references. One was to a short biography of the film’s star.

Of enormous interest to me, and I suspect to you and your readers, is the life of star Géza Röhrig , a life that seems to have been lived to prepare for this role.

The reference was to Cnaan Liphshiz’s article, “What’s behind the dark charisma of ‘Son of Saul star Géza Röhrig ,” that was distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on 18 February 2016.éza- Röhrig

First, Géza is a poet with a poet’s sensibilities. He was an orphan who was adopted by a Jewish family at the age of eleven. Why does Saul wake from his automaton uniform of self-protection as he is forced to usher victims into the gas chamber, search through their clothes for valuables and then dispose of the bodies afterwards until he too, after four months of such despicable enslavement, will also meet the same fate? Why become obsessed with a boy who miraculously survived but was then subsequently exterminated? Why seek to bury that body when, as a result, as mentioned above, both the rebellion and the act of witnessing are both undermined?

When he was four years of age, Röhrig was not permitted to attend his own father’s funeral by his uncle. By not burying his father figuratively, his father’s death remained unresolved. I can fully identify, even though the decision was not made by my uncle but by my father himself who opted for no funeral and donating his body to our medical school, and even though I was then a student in that medical school and not a four -year-old boy, and even though I had been estranged from my father for over a decade. As Röhrig said, “this film is about someone who desperately wants to bury a loved one. For me it was my father.” For me it was also my father whom I ostensibly insisted I did not love.

There is one other piece of crucial information in that interview besides the fact that, as a teenager studying in Krakow, Poland, 30 miles away, he had spent endless hours at Auschwitz where he had a religious awakening. Röhrig, after he became religiously observant at the age of twenty-one in New York, to earn money, he took a job as a shomer guarding the bodies of Jews before burial as well as ensuring those bodies were washed prior to burial. (Hence, the authenticity of that scene in the film.) The cleansing was not done to allow the person to be clean when they go though the pearly gates, for there is little focus on an afterlife. It is what the act of watching, washing and caring does for those who are living. Washing the body of the boy being prepared for an autopsy not only has an unusual authenticity, but we get a glimpse of why Saul fell in love with the boy and that he did. Michael Schulman in his article, “Watching” in the 29 February 2016 issue of The New Yorker got that, and much more.éza- Röhrig -corpse-washer-and-movie-star

Finally, the original reader whose comments I reprinted yesterday sent me a follow-up.

I have just found this great interview with Nemes: (there is a readers’ forum after the interview: interesting read as well).

The key sentences regarding our respective views are these:

Nemes: “There are no survivors in my film; I have only the dead. I didn’t want it to tell the story of survival. All these older films establish a safe road for the viewer, and at the end, some kind of liberation. But that’s not the story of the Holocaust. That’s the story of how we want the Holocaust to be. It’s not the story I wanted to tell.” He admits, however, that the film’s vision is not one of total nihilism: “There is a hope there, I think: not the hope of survival, but the hope of the inner voice that might still exist, when everything, including God and religion and sanity, is gone.”

So, his thinking is close to yours, I must admit. Nonetheless, I still think ending the movie with the boy running freely in that beautifully bright forest area under the blue sky is a symbol of hope that we can shape our future differently after Auschwitz. Evidence shows we can and we did: Israel exists.

And it is to Israel’s existence and its legitimacy that I will turn back to tomorrow in my continuing discussion of BDS.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Son of Saul I

Son of Saul I


Howard Adelman

Watch this film, and you must watch it, BEFORE reading the review below. I wrote a reader of my blog of Hungarian background who now lives in Germany the following note:

Have you seen Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes and co-authored with Clara Royer that won an academy award as Best Foreign Film as well as a Golden Globe in the same category? Stop reading if you have not seen the film and wait until you have. If you have seen it, is there a difference in watching and listening if you know Hungarian? What did you think of the film? Is the “son” real, legitimate or illegitimate, or an imaginary construct of Saul Ausländer? What is the significance, if any, that the young boy was still breathing after being gassed? Does Saul deep down know his Greek rabbi was a fake or does it even matter whether he knew or not as he obsessively pursued his self-appointed mission of giving the boy a proper Jewish burial? What did you think of the tension between picture-taking as witnessing, rebellion and adherence to religious ritual, especially since all three options fail? I have still not yet been able to make any sense of the order of events in the film. Do you have any idea?

I saw the film for the first time on the plane on my way back from Israel and that was probably the worst context to see the movie, that is, on a plane and not because I was returning from Israel.

I would appreciate any other comments you might have such as the cinematography of the constant close-ups on Saul and the vague sense of background, on the enormous importance of sound which seemed almost as important as the cinematography.

All the best.


She replies below. Her response is excellent. I now have no need of writing a review though the answer to my key question did not satisfy me because I tended to take an opposite interpretation of futility rather than affirmation of life – that life-affirming gestures are themselves madness when the world has gone mad, especially when the gesture is so obsessive and driven by fantasy. The film deservedly won its awards, but for such an accomplished film, it is absolutely surprising how few people that I know and who seek out great films have seen it. The subject matter of sonderkommandos was perhaps enough to turn them (and me) off. But it is a Must Watch film.

Hi again,

Prompted by your questions, I promptly set out to find a copy of the Son of Saul movie. It is available for online watching, but purchasing it as a DVD or blue ray won’t be possible before July 21 (at least in Germany). My internet connection is not very strong and so I did not think I would be able to watch the whole movie, but, in fact I managed to watch it, in its entirety, a pirated version with Chinese subtitles (!), online. Here is my immediate, first-impressions feedback:

I have never seen this subject matter filmed quite in this manner: it is an acoustic and visual masterpiece. It definitely should not be watched on a plane ride, with cheap disposable earphones, on a small screen, munching stale peanuts from a crackling cellophane bag. Not sure who got what prize for it, but those responsible for the sound effects alone deserve all sorts of accolades. Ideally, it should be watched in a theatre with state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound…

It does not matter whether or not one understands the language of the subtitles, and it also does not matter if one understands the Babelian cacophony of the many languages spoken by the prisoners against an ongoing, horrifying background of German commands screamed, dogs barking, shots exploding, the dull noise of random blows on people’s backs and heads, metal doors banging shut, the constant whoosh of huge flames ablaze, chaos, and people screaming in agony: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, or German whispered in surreptitiously hurried sentence fragments, the voices hoarse from the air polluted by the constant presence of death, poisonous gas, smoke, flames, and ashes. It does not matter that the main character happens to be Hungarian like the makers of the film: he could be from any nation; his name is, tellingly – Ausländer (foreigner).

It is hard to understand the dialogue alone acoustically. I think this was done on purpose: it gives you, the 21st century viewer sitting in your comfy armchair, a bewildering, frightening, physical, first-person experience at the gut level of what it must have meant to be thrown into this hellish environment, literally and figuratively not being able to grasp what was happening around you and to you (prisoners got shot on the spot simply because they did not understand the German commands, and did not remove their cap in time – I always wondered about the added stress the multilinguality of the environment must have caused). Other Holocaust movies tell a well-scripted story to the interested bystander, accompanied by sentimental violin solos (which normally I am a sucker for): this one pushes you physically into the middle of hell and bangs the door shut behind you. There is no escape here.

Visually, too, the movie does not narrate: it grabs you and forces you to be in the middle of it, peering through half-opened doors, being pushed and shoved amidst panicky crowds, lining up for the roll call, amidst vague shadows backlit by fire and shrouded in smoke, working feverishly on horrific, mindless tasks, must not stop, must not speak, must not think, just keep shoveling, sorting mountains of effects, scrubbing floors, dragging bodies, feeding the fire, and most of all, avoid calling attention to yourself.

The images are blurry (sometimes repetitive, just like the real daily routine of the Sonderkommando), except for the close-ups of the main character and his occasional interlocutors; your grasp of the events as a viewer is also blurry. You keep asking yourself: What is going on? What is happening? What are these people doing? Where are they going? And again, I think this is done on purpose: rather than hammering into your brain the horror with the sledgehammer-like force of explicit, meanwhile sadly familiar images, you get only glimpses of it, which is the more alarming as you can never quite be in the know of what is happening and why. And even when you get a glimpse, you cannot quite believe you are seeing what you are seeing: you become one of the new arrivals, and don’t have time to think it through; you are just thrown from one scene to the other, never knowing how it will end. Life is precarious, and death can become yours at any moment. This is precisely how it must felt to be dragged into a camp. This movie affects you like music: viscerally, not intellectually. You feel like being carried helplessly by the wild torrent of pointless, industrial-scale killing. How could have one gone on doing this if one had clearly understood what they were forced to do? The blurred background imagery is a perfect visual depiction of one’s possible mental state in such a context.

That prisoners, especially members of the Sonderkommando, “enjoying special privileges” for a limited time in exchange for their services would engage in picture taking and religious ritual is a symptom of maintaining “normalcy” even under the most abnormal circumstances. (And in fact, photos, drawings and diaries made by prisoners were found after the war, and religious ritual was adhered to as much as it was possible. There were philosophical discussions and poetry readings held. Gustav Mahler’s sister organized an orchestra and was very tough with them and criticized them for not being good enough – like it mattered… Did these attempts failed, just because the people performing them died? No, because the survivors reporting them are witnesses of the survival of humanity). The abnormal becomes the new normal. The normal human brain is designed to get “accustomed” to standard repetitive stimuli, and the synapses will fire only when something new and unusual stimulates them. This innate “attention deficit” has a definite survival value. The expressionless face of Saul reflects these comatose synapses, only lighting up for one purpose: the proper burial of the boy. That gesture is his poetry reading. It also does not matter if it is his own boy, a boy he would have loved to have, or a total stranger: the boy is the embodiment of his Mentschlichkeit.

There is also another quasi musical aspect to the film: a forever growing crescendo, acoustically, visually and in terms of the sequence of events, moving from a mechanical well-organized daily routine of gassing masses of people through the frenetic dialogue between the SS and the Sonderkommando about not being able to manage the volume, towards the uncontrollable chaos of burning the victims alive in that humongous fire at the pits (one of the rare images with a strong colour, other than the constant grey, black and brown) and the shots and explosions during the uprising: things really get out of hand (which, we know, is historically accurate – but we are not regaled with historic facts, instead, we are made to feel like we are among the crowd pushed and shoved and killed).

In contrast to the crescendo from a chillingly well-coordinated routine to uncontrollable chaos, there is one constant throughout the movie: Saul’s quest to give a proper burial to the boy. The boy’s survival under the circumstances is miraculous (although we heard of survivors crawling out from under several layers of dead bodies from a pit they were shot into, and possibly some people were also found alive after the gas). That the boy is killed by the doctor does not at all diminish this fact. That murder is predictable (part of the camp routine – so to speak), but that it was possible to survive the gas, survive the camp, survive the entire Holocaust is an idea we must believe in; we must hold on to this belief, it is what gives us hope that life is precious and worth living, no matter what. It is a fundamentally Jewish credo, put to fiery test throughout history and never given up or forgotten, despite all. This life-affirming attitude of the Jewish people is quite contrary to that of other people dismissing the value of earthly life of the here and now, and positively extolling the virtue of death, and of martyrdom as the key to that dubious other realm (Paradise and 72 virgins notwithstanding).

The boy is a metaphor of this life-affirming idea, in the most unlikely context, but precisely because of it. During the many close-ups on Saul, his face remains expressionless, just a part of the machinery he is forced to submit himself to; the first time we see a hint of gentleness and love on his face and hear him breathing heavily is when he lifts the shroud of the boy he has already thought lost. We then see a close-up of his back, while he is standing there, gazing at the boy’s wax-like face, and there is pain in that slightly crouched, much beaten and tormented back of the man the first time. Later, we see the gentlest gesture of his hands washing the body of the boy.

That the would-be rabbi is not a rabbi for he does not even know how to say Kaddish, does not make a difference. Real rabbis during particular hardship were known to give permission for modifying the rules, understanding that the intention to follow the rule may be superior to the actual ability to do so in reality. See the differentiation between accidental versus purposeful breaking the law in this Sabbath’s Torah portion: the penalty is lesser for the former.

During the climactic uprising, Saul manages to smuggle the body outside (as he comes up and outside from some basement we see a perfect blue sky in the door frame the first time (a quasi-reverse image of the victims filing down the stairs to the gas-chambers) and the subsequent images show the green of trees, the river, the sky, outdoors, freedom, the first time after all the grey of smoke and ash. We very much want to believe in this moment that he will succeed in his quest. Saul attempts to give the body a proper burial as much as it is humanly possible under the circumstances. He could just drop the whole project and run. Only the appearance of his mates, with the noise of the pursuers makes him move. He drags the body with him into the water, but accidentally loses it while struggling across the river with his mate (the real rabbi). You just know he will not go under, martyr-like with the body (that would be nauseatingly kitschy): His own struggle against drowning becomes the new metaphor for life. They survive initially (again, by sheer miracle) and hide in a hut in the forest. The peasant boy, accidentally finding them and standing there staring brings the first smile on Saul’s face. We breathe a cautious sigh of relief seeing that the boy does not tell on them (as you would expect in the Hollywood version of the story). He is being pushed out of the way by the approaching SS and runs for his life. He runs for LIFE which goes on with him and his generation, even if we hear (but don’t see) the predictable shots finishing off the escapees.

Even if individual attempts failed, life itself did not. Somebody said poetry after Auschwitz was not possible. This great movie, despite the horrifying experience watching it is, assures us that not only poetry and great art, but life as such, is possible, even after Auschwitz.

Terrific depiction of the film!

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jazz and Democracy

Jazz and Democracy


Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening on stage at that absolutely exceptional musical venue, Koerner Hall, Marcus Roberts, after he introduced the outstanding members of his band, The Modern Jazz Generation, and his planned program of the evening celebrating New Orleans and the jazz greats from that amazing city, turned toward his piano and seemed about to play. Then he turned back to the audience. He said that, although he had blabbered on long enough and should begin playing, he wanted to ask the audience a question. Perhaps they had heard there was an election going on south of them. He wondered whether there were any supporters of Donald Trump in the audience.

To my surprise, there were a considerable number as indicated by the applause and the favourable shouts. I thought Marcus Roberts would get up and walk out. Instead he asked, “And who supports Hillary Clinton?” The applause and cheers made the response for Trump seem miniscule in comparison. Then he asked, “Who supports Bernie Sanders?” It was hard to tell who received more applause, Hillary or Bernie. In the din and chatter that followed, before he turned back to play, I thought (or imagined) he mumbled, “Well I guess I can stay for the evening and play.

Though there were a scattered few young people in the audience, mostly musicians I guessed, the overwhelming majority were long in the tooth like myself. Our teenage years were spent in an age of crooners, in an Al Jolson revival, and with doo-wap and then folk music dominating the air waves before the early rockabilly of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis took over as rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley and the British Beatles invasion displaced jazz as the musical beat of the young. I still remember listening to Bo Didley at the Chicken Deli on the west side of Mount Pleasant below Eglinton, when rock made rhythm and blues a musical medium for fogies in their late twenties, thirties and forties.

After all, when I started university, Blackboard Jungle was playing in the movie theatres and the sound track featured Bill Haley and His Comets performing, “We’re Going to Rock Around the Clock.” I loved the movie but found it hard to listen to what I considered raucous noise. In my faulty and confused memory, I initially thought that Sidney Poitier starred as the WWII vet and frustrated and forbearing English teacher in a tough inner-city American school, but as I replayed parts of the movie in my mind, Sydney Poitier was the leader of the hard-nosed gang and Glenn Ford was the teacher. I had superimposed a movie forty years later, “To Sir, with Love” onto 1955.

Long in the tooth indeed! I decided my memory had been ruined by loud music. After all, everyone needs a scapegoat. By the time I completed graduate school and began my career teaching philosophy, I left a concert by Bob Dylan at Massey Hall at the beginning of the second half because Dylan had switched from acoustic to an electric guitar; the din gave me an instant headache. Indeed, The Times They Were a-Changing and I could not keep up to the speed.

So I attend the jazz series concerts at Koerner Hall that combine rhythm and melody. Yesterday evening, I listened to the virtuoso drumming of Jason Marsalis. He is truly a genius and makes playing percussion much more than keeping the beat. He not only has mastered all the skills, but has turned drumming into a versatile medium of self-expression as Marcus Roberts sometimes boogy-woogied and other times wildly improvised on the ivories along with all the other jazz greats, young as well as old, who join him and without exception are virtuoso performers. At times it appeared that Roberts used a device on his lap which I guessed must have been a Braille reader that perhaps reminded him of the itinerary for the evening. But that is just a guess and I could not figure out why there seemed to be a bit of confusion in transitioning from one number to another in the second half.

Rodney Jordan was brilliant as the bassist and never seemed to even glance at the music on his stand. He was both the least ostentatious and modest musician of the bunch while always seeming to respond, as if on cue, to whatever music he heard around him – until he played his own solo. Wow! In the back tier of the jazz ensemble sat the incomparable Randall Haywood playing trumpet along with Alphonso Horne. The two were absolutely brilliant. Horne plays with a lot of swagger while Haywood is both bold and retiring at one and the same time. Corey Wilcox dominated the middle tier, not simply because he is a very big man, but his tuba seems enormous and then he switches to trumpet and even the horn. What a versatile and virtuoso performer! Surprisingly, Caleb Mason on trombone almost kept up. Joe Goldberg on clarinet (and sometimes alto sax), whom Marcus Roberts introduced as a former physics major, centred the front tier. Tissa Khosla, who evidently cooks the band remarkable Indian food, played a baritone (and sometimes tenor) sax on his left (our right). Ricardo Pascal was on Goldberg’s right playing on the tenor and soprano sax.

We heard a lot of diamond-toothed Jelly Roll Morton who predated my maturing ear. (The band played “Doctor Jazz” and “The Pearls” – Roberts said that the latter had been written by Morton for a girl he fell for in Europe). Louis Armstrong also dominated in the repertoire.

I walk away from an evening of such brilliant jazz feeling inspired and blessing the luck of almost eight decades of life. How can you listen to Duke Ellington’s music without being buoyed up! Marcus Roberts said last night that jazz lies at the soul of America and is always new and renewable. I think it is the most democratic music for it allows each individual musician to play “his own horn” while working in an ensemble and playing off as well as with the others. Everyone is given a voice. That is why it is the music of equal opportunity and brashness in the face of adversity. It is also a music of stable rhythms and clarity in the sound. You can hear every note, especially from the sax players.

As yesterday proved, the old can be new again, for democracy has a built-in reverence for tradition and the rule of law, but not as a set of prison bars, but as standard setting and discipline, as a framework within which individuals can grow and thrive. Democracy is NOT populism. Democracy depends on a depth of knowledge of one’s tradition and one’s contemporary environment. If it is great jazz, it is never superficial where mouthing what first comes into your mind can be mistaken for “telling it as it is.” Jazz is not postmodernist where everything is said to be of equal value. Democracy is built on standards and a dedication to protecting and enhancing those standards and allowing each individual to realize his or her full potential.

When I return in subsequent blogs to dissecting the internal and external dynamics of so-called “democracy” in Iran, please keep this in mind. Does the democracy deliver tambour and constantly renew itself by providing a decorative interlacing dialectic between the society and the supporting columns and foundations that raise that society up as well as hold it together? Do the rhythms and counter-rhythms play off one another and with one another, or does one side of the tension turn into a disloyal opposition intent on serving as a spoiler rather than a creative counter? Is the repetition and dominant rhythm one of a military band that ensures that everyone marches to the same tune, or is the beat there to ensure a constitutional core that facilitates spontaneity and creativity? Is the conversation one of call and response or does it display deaf ears that turn away from the language of the other? Does the political system cultivate listening or deafen us to the voices of others? In other words, as the miasma bubbles up in a volcanic changing environment, do we experience flight in the face of real or imagined fears, away from freedom, or does the prospect of change and renewal inspire a move towards freedom?

I do not mean to put down the mambo and the samba, rhumba or calypso, but jazz is the soul of America, as Marcus Roberts declared, because it and it alone reveres riffing and improvisation. America par excellence is the country of discovery, of invention. Are we promoting multiplicity or insisting upon uniformity? Are we revering dynamism or stasis? Are we insisting upon strict and confining boundaries or a realm which challenges and alters those boundaries? Do we revere blackness, the revelations of the dark side, or does that just scare the bejeebies out of us? And then do we wear hoods over our heads and white robes in the elusive and eternally unsuccessful, indeed absolutely stupid pursuit of absolute purity, terrific and necessary for the lab but irrelevant to the brutal confusions and chaos of everyday life? Do we understand that democracy has far more to do with the experience of Black Americans, as much as we owe to the white founders, some of whom owned slaves, who read David Hume, John Locke and Adam Smith and were children of the Scottish enlightenment? For though jazz is about invention and improvisation, that creativity requires standards of excellence, mastery of foundations. That is why Marcus Roberts is so dedicated to the preservation and renewal of the greats who founded the jazz tradition. Are those who inspire us – Gershwin and Stravinsky, Matisse and Picasso – ones who loved jazz? Is the political music open-ended or does it lead us to a dead end? Do we build by mastering a legacy or turning that heritage into idolatry?

Is our language of discourse one about frontiers or about closed and walled-off spaces? Is it about cross-fertilization of differences or about the restrictive boundaries? I, of course, in writing about Iran, will also be writing about Canada and the U.S.

arshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59

Parshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59


Howard Adelman

What does the ritual of cleanliness and purification after childbirth have to do with the practice of exclusion and what does the practice of exclusion have to do with the circumcision of male children on the eighth day? Verse 2 and 3 of Leviticus ch. 12, Tazria, read: “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” And why is a woman unclean for two weeks and not one when she has a female child? And why is her banishment from the sanctuary also doubled from 33 to 66 days when the child is a female rather than a male? Why should a woman be regarded as unclean at all after bearing a child?

What connection is there between the birth of a child and a disease like leprosy or even metaphoric leprosy, setting aside how accurate medically the symptoms of the physical condition leprosy as depicted in the text are? Why is raw flesh, of a placenta or chronic leprosy, regarded as unclean? In the case of leprosy, verse 46 of ch. 13 commands that, “He (she) shall remain unclean as long as (s)he has the disease. He (she) is unclean. He (she) shall live alone. His (her) dwelling shall be outside the camp.” What is the condition of tzaraat that commands social exclusion? On the other hand, what does it mean in modern society for a wife to stick by her husband and go into exile with him along with their children?

Yesterday, I wrote a review of the film, The Family, about a mafia family in which a minor mafia boss played by Robert De Niro is sent into exile with his wife and two teenage children in Normandy, France, under the American witness protection program because he ratted on his mafia family, not speaking ill of others without warrant, but with warrant, serving to ensure not simply his expulsion from his mafia family, but making himself a target for elimination. For the mafia Majordomo is determined on revenge. The dominant theme of the movie is exclusion, the loss of the family’s sense of belonging in their Italian community in Brooklyn, how alien De Niro is as a non-French speaker in a small town in Normandy, how the two children have to adapt to a new school and win friends, and how, to overcome the sense of strangeness of this family settling in Normandy when the FBI decides to attempt integration rather than preserving privacy and exclusion which in itself raises suspicions.

Last night we watched the first three episodes of the first season of the Emmy award-winning TV series, The Good Wife, which will end its seventh season run next month. The series also deals with exclusion as a dominant theme. This time the family is not relocated to Normandy, but is exiled from the rich suburban city of Highland Park, 26 miles north of downtown Chicago as Peter (Chris Noth) and Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) are forced to sell their opulent home to pay Peter’s legal bills after he is charged and convicted in a sex and bribery scandal when he was serving as the State’s Attorney for Cook County, which includes the City of Chicago. Alicia relocates with her two children, Zach and Grace, to an apartment, and Alicia resumes her career as a litigation attorney at the bottom rung while her husband, Peter, is sent to jail. Dislocation, alienation, the challenges of reintegration in work and society drive the drama. But the series begins with the focus of the camera on the hand-holding of Peter and Alicia as Peter marches up to deal with the shame and disgrace in the court of public opinion in response to the scandal.

Women are door mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

The children have lost their friends as a result of both the scandal and the move. Alicia too is no longer “received” by her former neighbours. Even in her new job, she lives in the shadow of the scandal that is both political and personal because the sexual dalliances of her husband with prostitutes are so devastating to her. The show deliberately resonates on the Bill and Hillary Clinton scandals when Bill was President, but more specifically with the Eliot Spitzer prostitute scandal when he occupied the same position in New York State as Peter Florrick did in Illinois in the TV series. Hillary was and is a lawyer. So was Elizabeth Edwards in the John Edwards sex scandal. Sex and shame. Oh how far the mighty can fall, bringing down with them in shame and ignominy their wives and children.

The series falls into the genre of courtroom drama with a case per week in the first three episodes – a wife wrongly accused of killing her husband in the first episode, an escort who justly accuses her rich patron of rape in the second episode, and a teenager from Alicia’s old neighbourhood of Highland Park unjustly accused of manslaughter. An essential plot device in these crime and courtroom dramas is uncovering the missing clues that will lead to exoneration of the victim and just punishment for the perpetrator.

But these are just the technical devices to introduce suspense and keep the plot moving. The main interest is psychological and social. As in The Family, though Marge may not be smart in terms of education and personal career achievement, she is intelligent, independent, feisty as well as a loving mother. So is Alicia, but though Alicia is professionally trained, she runs up against her own insecurity which the street-smart Marge, who has every reason to be insecure, never does, though she is understandably in terror, mostly for her children, when the mafia hitmen come after her and her family. Alicia, though brave and determined, still wears her fall from grace on her sleeve. Marge remains a good wife. Alicia was one and we wonder whether she, like Hillary, will return to her husband’s side. Both women are cool, though Alicia is radically different from Marge in speaking clearly and with purpose where words follow thought processes rather than expressing an emotional state.

But isn’t this a real stretch from leprosy and circumcision? The link with leprosy is easier to establish. The sex offender, whether the betraying husband or the rapist or the sex offender or the pedophile, is the contemporary version of an individual deemed to have leprosy and requiring quarantine, at least until the disease is clearly in remission. Both are “diseases” of the flesh. The conditions are both seen as resulting from moral turpitude. Ostracism is the accompanying punishment. But ratting on one’s social family and allowing your sexual peccadilloes to become matters of public discussion are worse because each also brings the punishment to bear on the good wife and the good children, even if the wife and children in the comedy are not as innocent as they initially appear.

But over the long term, though I am unwilling to invest my time in the whole series to find out, I suspect subsequent episodes of The Good Wife will reveal Alicia to have as much passion as the compassion she displays, for Zach to reveal he is as clever as De Niro’s son, but in a more diagnostic and analytic way as adumbrated when he discovers the sexual scandal pictures that destroyed his father’s career were computer generated, and that the friendless younger sister, Grace, who so missed her old life will reveal as much gumption and independence as the seventeen-year-old daughter of Robert De Niro in forging a new life for herself.

But a key character in the film and the TV series is a misanthrope, the part of the FBI agent played by Tommy Lee Jones and the role of the in-house investigator in Alicia’s legal firm, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Punjab. We know virtually nothing personal about either character, certainly in the first three episodes of The Good Wife, even though Kalinda has a great deal of screen time. If Alicia is cool and collected, Kalinda is cold and calculating and never upset by all the shenanigans. Both are protective – Kalinda of Alicia and the FBI agent of De Niro’s character – even though both evince the view that no one is to be trusted. The most distrusting characters become the ones exhibiting the most trust. They do so in a context in which, underneath the exclusion and ostracism, underneath the diseases of the flesh of sexual dalliances and leprosy, in contexts in which both dramas are replete with dead corpses (off the screen in The Good Wife and displayed with abandon in The Family), at the root of both dramas is the question, “Who can you trust?”

Which brings us to circumcision, brit milah, and the connection with social ostracism! For the Jewish ritual of circumcision entails cutting into the flesh of a baby, cutting off a symbolic piece of the flesh of a male child’s foreskin, in practice by an experienced mohel, who may or may not be a physician, but in reality is just a proxy for the father. If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.

Trust and distrust are two poles. The misanthrope ostensibly trusts no one. The naïve trusts anyone. But to get by in life we must learn whom to trust and whom to distrust and to what degree. When trust is betrayed, the betrayer is ostracized to some degree. At the extreme, the individual is cast entirely out of the community. A Jewish lad from his second week in existence is taught that he must never completely trust, not just anyone, but especially himself and his own penis. Look at Eliot Spitzer. Look at Bill Clinton.

But what has all of this, even granting a connection between circumcision and ostracism, have to do with a woman being unclean after delivering a child, and being doubly unclean after delivering a female rather than a male child? What is the significance of being טָמֵא, tummah, unclean which is such an obsession in the book of Leviticus? When the word is made flesh, when is the flesh made “unclean”? Contact with a corpse makes one temporarily unclean. Food, clothes, animals and things, but especially people, can be unclean.

When Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,” the general interpretation is to set up the analogy as holy:common = clean:unclean. Cleanliness is associated with holiness, with purity. The parallel is made between “holy” and “clean” and the “common” with the “unclean.” But according to the structure of the proposition, the analogy should be: holy:common = unclean:clean. It is the common, it is the ordinary, it is the behaviour according to the norms of everyday life, that is clean. It is pride, it is the viewing oneself as a god, as seeing oneself as purer than the ordinary, that is unclean. When a prosecutor sets out on the path to expunge his world of corruption, to drive the scalawags out of office, beware. Raise your antenna of distrust. For both religious and secular holy rollers are particularly suspect.

If you regard yourself as occupying an exclusive sphere immune to the temptations of desire, then pride will surely go before the fall. No one, especially one’s own father, is holy. Uncleanliness is an integral part of life. But we must guard against contamination, not the contamination of dirt, not the contamination of the ordinary, but the contamination of the obsession with one’s own purity and exclusive status. The higher we view ourselves, the greater the fall and the more appropriate the punishment and the degree of exclusion. And when we kill at will, whether as a mafia hit man, a murderer or a terrorist, when we see as our mission and vocation as taking another’s life as simply an everyday occupation, then absolute exclusion is appropriate. When we have incurable metaphoric leprosy, total isolation from society is appropriate.

If this perverse interpretation has any play, why are women in childbirth regarded as unclean, and why are they regarded as doubly unclean when the child born is a female?  Simply put, lest the mother feel holier than ever because she gave birth to a child and lest she feel doubly holy because the child born is a female, the key guarantor of reproduction. Females have twice the value of the male child (and usually have to work twice as hard to prove they are male’s equal), so the risk of conceiving oneself as holier than thou requires ritual preventive detention and social exclusion to ward off any contamination of the disease, from the germ that gives rise to the danger.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder that he cannot trust his penis for it has a mind of its own, especially when wedded to the holy spirit, when the male sees himself as an exemplification of the holy spirit. Females do not need to learn to distrust themselves, but they still need to learn to ward off any betrothal to the holy spirit of purity. The ritual of symbolic exclusion, of a woman regarding herself as unclean when she does give birth, and doubly so when she gives birth to a female child, exemplifies a need to be ritually and very temporarily ostracized to prevent the potential malady from becoming runaway contamination.

The upshot of the diagnosis of tzaraat, especially of an acute condition that has become chronic and incurable, is banishment, and, in the extreme, permanent banishment. A Judean king afflicted with acute tzaraat remained under house arrest for the rest of all his life in a beit hachoshit, a house of quarantine. For the rest of us, quarantine is a temporary state from which we should emerge stronger and better than ever. Thank God we are not kings – or queens!

With the help of Alex Zisman


The Family – a movie review

The Family: A Movie Review


Howard Adelman

I will discuss this week’s Torah portion tomorrow if everything goes according to plan, though this has not been the usual pattern lately. The Torah portion is about tzaraat, an affliction and condition about which we should feel most ashamed and demanding the most extreme measure in response, shaming and exclusion from society. I have written about the problematic nature of shaming before, trying people in the court of public opinion, and the disastrous consequences of such practices. Exclusion is the ultimate form of shaming. The Inuit do it and send those afflicted out into the ice cold winter of the Arctic to survive on their own. The ancient Israelites practiced shaming, even as the religion of the Hebrews transformed shaming and suborned it to a guilt culture under the rule of law.

The Family is a film about a family, a whole family, a husband, a wife, a fourteen-year-old son and a beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter, each and every one afflicted with tzaraat in the ultimate cinematic representation of the condition. But not as a tragedy; as a comedy. And an absolutely hilarious one at that. To be fair, after glimpsing some reviews after I saw the movie on Netflix last evening, I belong to a small minority who clearly love and appreciate the film. I did not choose to watch the movie, but I assented to do so, knowing only that it was a gangster or mafia movie. I did not even know it was a comedy.

The film has top actors, Robert De Niro as Giovanni Manzini (Fred Blake), a relatively minor crime boss sent into exile in Normandy, France, under a witness protection program of the FBI because he ratted out his larger mafia family, Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie Blake, the wife of Manzini with the new last name assigned to the family by the FBI, but who, unlike her husband, is not forced to take on a new first name, Diana Agron as the beautiful seventeen-year old daughter, Belle, John D’Leo as Warren, the fourteen-year-old precocious son, though a progeny in the perverse way of the mob, and, to round up the all-star cast, Tommy Lee Jones plays the straight and long-suffering FBI agent charged with administering the protection of the family. The acting is faultlessly brilliant, especially by Michele Pfeiffer as most critics who did not really care for the film agreed.

The film was somehow billed as a thriller/action movie when there are virtually no thrills and the action, including all the cold-blooded killing – and the movie overflows with blood – is inverted into comedy much as in the treatment of the corpse in My Weekend With Bernie. This is how the film is depicted in the promotional copy as about a family which “can’t help but resort to doing things the ‘family’ way. However, their dependence on such old habits places everyone in danger from vengeful mobsters.” But the stars in the movie are never in danger. We never fear for their safety. It is a comedy after all and all of them will survive the murder and mayhem. You have to be totally out-of-it to have any fears that the “heroes” of the movie will come to wrack and ruin.

Further, to describe the family as “afflicted with old habits” is simply a totally inadequate understatement when each of the members, charming as each one is in his or her own way, carries the ultimate flaw of being total psycho- and socio-paths, carrying the curse of tzaraat and totally deserving of exclusion from normal society. That depiction is simply gross distortion or an inside joke in itself that the following reviewers took seriously in repeating that motif. Below are some examples of “reviews”:

Nick De Semlyen in Empire

The Family is a comedy. This is made evident by the gratingly jolly music that plays over every scene, if not by the film’s clunky contrivances and desperate search for a good punchline. Luc Besson’s big idea is to plonk a violent, sweary Mafia family into the rarified environs of the French countryside, but there’s a serious lack of imagination, from the first-base casting (Robert De Niro as the don, Michelle Pfeiffer as the woman married to the Mob, Tommy Lee Jones as the dogged FBI agent, a bloke from The Wire as a bloke monitoring a wire) to a meta scene involving GoodFellas that gives meta a bad name.

Sandy Schaefer in Screen Rant

The Family revolves around the Manzonis, a notorious Mafia family that’s been hiding out in and around France ever since the patriarch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) ratted out his fellow mobsters to the Feds. Giovanni and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) have been a constant thorn in the side of Witness Protection Program agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) for the past ten years, since their habitual psychotic behavior is constantly blowing the U.S. government’s covert operation. Giovanni, now passing himself off as American Fred Blake, relocates with his family to the sleepy town of Normandy, where at first it seems as though the (former?) criminals will be able to settle down quietly and keep a low profile. However, as the saying goes, old habits die hard and soon enough all of the Manzonis start getting themselves into trouble – the kind that, sooner or later, is bound to earn unwanted attention from the hitmen looking to collect the bounty on Giovanni’s head.

Paul Asay in Plugged In

Everyone’s got a story. We’re all central characters in our own narratives filled with drama, action, passion and comedy. Some folks even write their stories down, believing that they might be of interest to others. That’s great. Nothing wrong with that at all—unless you’re in the Witness Protection Program. Then it’s probably not such a hot idea. Giovanni Manzoni and his family have been in the program for years now. Ever since Giovanni ratted on his other family (that’d be the Mafia), this ex-wiseguy’s been running and hiding from his former associates with the help of FBI agent Robert Stansfield, who does his best to keep Giovanni and his family alive. It’s not easy. The family business is in the Manzoni blood, and they’re never in a place very long before some (ahem) unfortunate tendencies resurface. When suspicions and neighborhood body counts start to rise, Robert and his operatives swoop in and move the Manzonis somewhere safer.

Just as Fred tried to be a good dad, The Family may have tried, at one point, to be a good movie. Maybe this was supposed to be a story about a family coming closer together in the midst of struggle. Maybe we were supposed to see the children grow a little more mature. Maybe we were supposed to notice Fred change deep down, to see him realize that his real family is so much more valuable than the Mafia he used to call his family. Maybe one of these characters, somehow, somewhere, was supposed to have changed and grown, even just a little.

And every once in a while, we do glimpse hints that some of these themes might’ve been in the movie … once. But if they were ever there, somewhere along the line they were dropped like a pair of concrete galoshes, leaving the movie to flounder and sink, both in terms of its story and its morality. In the end, there’s no purpose to much of anything here, really. No reason for the bodies or blood or brutality or 40 f-words. It’s true that everyone has a story—but this isn’t much of a story at all. And what there is of it doesn’t deserve to be told.

Even Sheila O’Malley, who, under the Roger Ebert label, offers a modestly favourable review, though far from a rave, falls into the habit of accepting the publicity, as handed to reviewers, that the central theme is about the deeply held habits of a family that just happen to be a crime family.

The Family is a pretty uneven film, lurching from comedy to violence to sentiment, but it’s best when it sticks in the realm of flat-out farce. The pleasure comes in watching the actors (Michelle Pfeiffer in particular) submitting wholeheartedly to ridiculous situations. The film has a mix of influences and genres, obviously, and Besson plays with these and references them openly, but the farcical elements rest uneasily beside the violence, leaving the unmistakeable (sic!) feeling that this is a film slightly at war with itself.

I really do not get it. How do such obtuse film commentators, whose reviews mostly consist of giving away the details of the narrative, get to be elevated to the status of critics when they have no idea of what a simple, straight-forward comedy is really all about. The Family is a hilarious first class and almost perfect comedy. Let’s start with the family.

The commentators are correct in at least this much. The mafia is “a family.” The core of this film is about a typical modern family, two parents with two teenaged children, a boy and a girl. While the larger social family remains true to form in exercising revenge on anyone who betrays the “mafia” family, the core typical family is totally atypical for it exercises revenge, not just for betrayal, but for the more fundamental failure of giving the members of the family due recognition and respect. The film is about respect and recognition in the context of a family banished from one society – both America and, more importantly, the mafia society to which the family belongs – as it attempts to “integrate” into French society when the members of the family do not speak French (though Maggie, we are led to believe from the scene in the supermarket, at least understands the language).

The film is comedy as grossed-out farce. It has all the essential elements of the comic – depiction of society and social groups – you name it, not simply the nuclear family, but French society, the FBI, adolescent youth – as immune to change. Precisely because of that resistance, we have the implied criticism of local incompetent municipal politics, of corrupt industries polluting the water supply, of plumbers who have left their professionalism in the past to become poor imitations of mafia shakedown artists, to the initial victim of Fred’s revenge, a seller of lobsters in the south of France who tried to pass off rotting lobsters as fresh. Society, not just American society, but the archetypal French society of small, trusted shop owners, and proud artisans with integrity, has become as rotten as the mafia. That society is left in ruins with all its institutions of order ravaged, while the core family so deeply afflicted with tzaraat is forced into exclusion once again, but it is the social unit that emerges unscathed as the exemplification of the happy family, “closer together than ever before.” Of course they resist change. That is their function in a comedy, but in doing so in such an extreme fashion, the family is used to reveal how the traditions of small town social system suffer deeply from the same rot. So, rather than the ideal being held up as a standard to reflect the fault lines in society, its worst exemplification is used for that purpose, namely a mafia family from Brooklyn. So the “family” persists, but the hypocritical society in which they enjoyed temporary refuge is left physically and institutionally as a ruin.

This is not a romantic comedy. The children, instead of being the repositories of complete innocence in contrast to the parents, instead of being the exemplifications of inexperience, are as deeply afflicted with tzaraat as their parents. The family emerges as more united, not by family values, but by their absolute intolerance of any form of disrespect. Each member of the family is a case of the search for recognition and respect gone awry.

And it is all carried out against a background of supposedly shocking killings and mutilations but where the shock effect of each incident has been totally emptied of any horror. We laugh at the most obscene cruelties. After all, this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and a comedy about tragedy. And Fred, or Giovanni, just wants to write his memoirs, his story of the unvarnished truth so that he can be recognized for who he truly is. Yet this is not a comedy of ideas. But each of the main characters in the family is an exemplification of initiative and imagination from the particular perspective of the small sub-world in which each lives. Each member of the family is hurt deeply in their own way. And each calculates a way to exact revenge in total disproportion to the incident that instigated their individual pain. Thus, will, feeling and thought are all central to each of the main characters’ make-up.  And each character acts as an archetypal Italian mafia Brooklynite, even satirizing that portrayal in the response of Fred to the replaying of Goodfellas in which he himself starred, and in the audience’s reaction to Fred’s sentimental, nostalgic and painful retelling of his tale of revenge with cheers and standing applause giving him finally the respect and recognition he has long sought. But it is too late, even though the tap water has lost its shitty brown colour and finally flows out with all its clarity restored in this perverse product of the hero refusing to take obscurantism as a cover for institutionalized violence against the social fabric and, instead, acts, translates false speech into corrective, even if comically violent, action. That is, of course, why the music that accompanies the film is so playful, something noted by very few of the critics, and even when De Semlyen comments on it, it as if the music is simply a foreign attachment to allow the film to pretend it is a comedy.

Something also overlooked is the way grammar is insistently abused in Mafia dramas, as is any logic, for logic is always about proportion, but there is absolutely no proportion between the instigation and the response. Michelle Pfeiffer blows up a supermarket simply because the local French grocer and a few of his customers diss Americans and her family as specific exemplifications of vulgar Americana, the same Americans who came ashore in 1944 to free Normandy from the Nazis. There is no effort by any of the members of this mafia family to persuade the French of the error of their ways. Speech is expressive and is not used to convince the other. Hence Warren’s comments about his father’s use of the word “fuck” to mean almost anything imaginable. We have, in reality, the antithesis to poetry. Without grammar, without logic, without the lyricism of poetry, we can observe humans behave in their purest uncivilized state and we understand why this family can never be given a refuge anywhere.

This comedy ends perfectly, with the integration of the social unit most fundamental to the stability and continuity of society, the family. Further, that family is fully adjusted to society as a whole. But since that society itself is so hypocritically dysfunctional, because that society has lost any sense of its integrity, the family cannot integrate into that society which is left in ruin and the family forced, because it is the exemplification of tzaraat, to move on, seek refuge elsewhere, though we are left totally convinced that this will be their constant state.

So instead of social reform, we get absurdity. Fred’s society, recalled with so much sentiment and nostalgia throughout the film, is the society of society-at large that does not give him what he believes he needs, but because it is a need based on totally false values, it comes both too late to save that society and certainly too late for any reform. Michelle Pfeiffer always wanted to act opposite Robert De Niro and she both gets her wish and manages to keep her man in the movie. She succeeds not only doubly, but triply because she shows that she can be one of the greatest comediennes of our time. She is just outstanding.

Watch the movie. Appreciate its deep structural meaning. And ignore the reviewers who describe every scene and give away the plot but never really understand the movie.


With the help of Alex Zisman