November 18, 2018

“Felix and Meira:” A rare portrayal of Chasidim as Human Beings

This is a re-post of my original posted in February. I am re-posting because “Felix and Meira” opens today in New York City and will open in Los Angelas on April 24.

I recently saw the film “Felix and Meira” at the New York Jewish Film Festival. The film, which stars Hadas Yaron, Martin Dubreuil and Luzer Twersky, tells the story of a married Chasidic woman who feels dissatisfied with the life she is leading and becomes involved with a non-Jewish man. Oscilloscope Laboratories will release the film theatrically on April 17th. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in seeing Chasidic people portrayed onscreen as real people.  My recommendation is a bit ironic, since actual members of the Chasidic community would no doubt disapprove of the film, given its subject matter and the mere fact that it is a film, something Chasidic people aren’t supposed to watch.  However, I’m making that recommendation as a modern orthodox woman who does go to movies.

As I said, I am modern orthodox, but I know and am related to many ultra-orthodox people, including some Chasidim. (“Chasidim” is the plural of Chasid.  Also, even though Chasidim are ultra-orthodox, not all ultra-orthodox people are Chasidic.) Almost invariably, when I see portrayals of orthodox people, especially ultra-orthodox people, in television or at the movies, I cringe.  Besides the outright inaccuracies about the rules and customs of the community, the characters are generally portrayed as either buffoons providing a punchline or as judgmental robots with no emotions except self-righteous anger.  There is judgment in these communities. But there is also humanity.

In “Felix and Meira,” I saw that humanity.  Although the main character, Meira (pronounced Meh-eera, emphasis on the last syllable), is unhappy in the community, her unhappiness appears to stem more from the general insularity and restrictions of the lifestyle than with mistreatment.  Indeed, her husband, who is very devout, genuinely loves her and tries to deal with her unhappiness.  Of course, his support has limits, as he adheres to the restrictions Meira is coming to resent, but his response is still that of a man, not just a machine spouting rules and regulations.

I think one of the main reasons for this realism is the fact that the actor who plays Meira’s husband, Luzer Twersky, was raised as a Satmar Chasid.  In the Q&A at the festival, Luzer said that the film’s director, Maxim Giroux, who is not Jewish, asked for his input on all aspects of the film’s representation of chasidic life.  I also believe that Twersky’s performance, as well as that of Melissa Weisz, who was also raised Chasidic and plays one of Meira’s friends, were among the most compelling of all the performances in the film because they actually lived that life.

In something of a twist, Meira is played by Hadas Yaron, who, while not orthodox herself, played a devoutly ultra-orthodox woman in the award-winning Israeli film “Fill the Void.”  I don’t think it is coincidence that that movie, one of the few besides “Felix and Meira” that I feel portrays the ultra-orthodox as real people, was directed by an ultra-orthodox woman, Rama Burshtein.

On a purely practical note, the language in the film can be a bit confusing.  That is because not only do the Chasidim speak Yiddish amongst themselves, as they generally do in real life, but the movie takes place in Montreal, so conversations not between Chasidim are spoken in either English or French.

In any event, the key question that my recommendation raises is why someone not part of this community should make an effort to understand it, particularly since the community itself doesn’t seem to make the effort to understand those outside it.  My answer is that we’re living in a time when most Jewish people believe that it’s important to understand other cultures, lifestyles and religions in order to live together harmoniously.  I say that that reasoning should apply to the different elements of our own community as well.