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18. A Price Above Rubies
Boaz Yakin has an agenda. There is no denying his fierce talent as a visual storyteller, his gift for recording plain yet evocative dialogue, his flare for tackling diverse material – and there is no denying his agenda. A Price Above Rubies is a tremendous effort, really a daring and courageous undertaking for any relatively unproven filmmaker, let alone a Jewish one coming off a heralded rookie effort. Four years after Yakin wrote and directed Fresh – a spot on Spike Lee/John Singletonesque tale of a young black kid selling drugs, playing chess with Samuel L. Jackson, and trying to keep his head above water in a shark infested ocean of combustible humanity – he settled on A Price Above Rubies as his sophomore effort. I can picture the meeting with the studio heads. The script practically pitches itself as a “controversial” exposé of the veiled world of ultra-orthodox Judaism. But why go there? Why wait four years to make such an unmarketable film? Well, they say write what you know, and after watching both Fresh and Rubies, one might venture that Yakin’s breadth of knowledge is without boundary. The title is a play on a pasuk from the Book of Mishlei, one recited every Friday night by orthodox Jewish husbands as a song of praise to their wives. It tells (or maybe Yakin would say reveals) the story of Sonia Horowitz (compelling Renee Zellweger), an artistic and passionate soul trapped in the layers, wigs, and assorted tznuah accoutrements of a Chasidic female body. She is the wife of a promising, wholly God fearing rebbi (Glenn Fitzgerald, whom you’d swear was picked up on a street corner in Borough Park), she is mother to a newborn son, she is daughter to a heartbroken mother, and sister to a beloved brother who one night when they were children told her the story of their disgraced Bubbie, who abandoned her family only to die and eventually be cast from hell to wander the earth. This unsettling story is told to Sonia seemingly as a warning, her fate and predisposition perhaps apparent at a young age. It is told to her just before her plastic-faced brother removed his yarmulke and tzi-tzis, kissed the mezuzah, ran out into the night, and drowned in a nearby lake. So, yes, Sonia is visited and haunted by ghosts. She grows up an unrepentant child of gloom vying to find her place in a world of spiritual light, ironically enough via a sect that uniformly wears black.The supernatural elements of the script, Yakin may have thrown in just to give the film some edge, but the device is ultimately unnecessary. Sonia doesn’t need such an elaborate back-story or the insinuation that she may be the present incarnation of an ancient restless spirit. Sonia is basically as typical as any animated Disney protagonist. She simply doesn’t belong.
A human being is biologically and chemically predisposed to adapt to a vast array of cultural and topographical environments. We can adjust and conform as needed to slug it out even when our ideal conditions of comfort are not met. A free spirited, intelligent, passionate, sexual woman embedded in a Chasidic enclave in Brooklyn, as is the situation in which Sonia finds herself, certainly tests the limits of that sociological principle. Sonia, as God and Boaz Yakin made her, seemingly has two choices – escape the life she was born into, or metaphorically share her brother’s fate. That does not excuse her horrendous behavior, but regardless, we are asked to contemplate her with that frame of reference. A Price Above Rubies is as much about harshly judging a woman for intolerably giving up on her family and religion as it is about admiring her for avoiding tragedy and choosing life.
My estimate is that Yakin (fiendishly) roots for the latter reaction, though he provides convincing evidence to support both. According to his bio, Mr. Yakin was born in New York to secular Israeli parents and sent to yeshiva despite not practicing orthodoxy at home. Needless to say, if true, such a curious (yet understandable, knowing our people) parenting method could have engendered an unhealthy outlook toward the religion. Clearly, Yakin knows his mikvah from his Hatikvah, his shaitel from his dreidle, and he refuses to pander to (or assist) his audience by explaining, identifying, translating, or demystifying insider phraseology, rites, rituals, or even basic philosophical perspectives. The film should have been rated M for Ha’Mevin Yavin. In all honesty, it would be difficult to imagine a mainstream American movie presenting ultra orthodoxy in a more authentic, precisely detailed way (in terms of external observance). Because of Boaz Yakin’s research or simple educated awareness, one cannot but take A Price of Rubies seriously, even with its wild allegations and flagrant abuse of dramatic license. Yakin exhibits a masterful control over his material.
When he portions out scenes endearing Judaism (and they are few and far between), his personal reserve of admiration shines through. And when he seeks to undermine it (which is the case more often than not) his wrath and personal vendettas are bitingly apparent. He is like a lunatic M60 operator furiously shredding a paper target who needs to be reminded that the target is not fighting back before removing his finger from the trigger.
This is not to say some of his comments are unimportant and unappreciated by those who care to address issues in orthodoxy (specifically women’s issues). That women (their needs, both emotional and physical) are not made a priority in a community where male comradery, rebbi worship, and avodas Hashem seem to occupy all facets of a man’s day. Where the status quo is to patronize women regarding their lofty value, when historically women were treated as third class citizens (along with children, converts, slaves, and the impaired). That saying “I love you” to your wife and telling her she is beautiful is no sin, is no waste of words, is not forbidden levity, is not beyond anyone’s righteous self-image. And perhaps most significantly, that just because someone conforms to a culture that demands visible symbols of piety does not mean that they are not devils beneath a devout exterior. And Yakin makes sure that we have bearded, payesed, black hat wearing, Torah learning, Shabbos celebrating devils so that his audience can go home sniping, “See, those orthodox Jews aren’t such good people after all!” Which is a fair conclusion because the premise is correct, but Yakin’s argument is presented with such blind rage and fury that his little film goes from sensitive and perceptive to sensational and scandal-mongering very quickly.