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Jane Enkin Previews The Unorthodox - Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival-Friday May 24, 5 p.m.

by Jane Enkin, May 23, 2019



The Unorthodox, filled with fascinating characters, was inspired by the formation of the Shas party, the Religious Sephardi political party in Israel. Shas has had a dramatic rise – Wikipedia says that it is now the third largest party in Israel, and forms part of every governing coalition. It represents the interests of Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Sephardi and Mizrachi Israelis (from North-African, Middle-Eastern, and nearby countries.). It attracts non-Haredi Sephardic and Mizrachi voters as well, in part because of its “alignment with the promotion of 'an authentic Middle Eastern' Israeli culture.”


Rather than staying close to history, writer/director Eliran Malka has created new characters and a vivid, personal, fictional story. In a way, the narrative of The Unorthodox has the flavour of one of the many sports movies that feature an underdog team that comes through. What makes the film come alive are the strong personalities of the characters.


The film is told from the point of view of Yakov Cohen, (Shuli Rand) a straightforward man who runs a printing business in Jerusalem. He constantly experiences the dominance of Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi (European background) Israelis, and the authority of their political and institutional representatives, the Agudat Yisrael. In his voice-over narration, Cohen says “Every party got its start when somebody got fed up, when he got so sick and tired he decided to shake things up.”


For Cohen, his moment arrives when his daughter is expelled for no reason from a girls' yeshiva. After giving a few contrived excuses, the principal dismisses him by saying his daughter simply “doesn't fit in.”


Without a huge amount of hope, Cohen begins to organize and fund-raise. He soon attracts the fiery Yigal Vaknin (Yoav Levi), and they decide they need a rabbi on the team. They find Rabbi Moshe Sharvit (Yakov Cohen), and the three of them bring increasing attention to their campaign for City Council. They are up against a formidable adversary in Agudat Yisrael and its powerful supporters.


It's interesting for me to watch a film based on Israeli history that takes place entirely within Ultra-Orthodox communities – secular Israelis barely make an appearance in the movie. Equally interesting, and disturbing, is the continued prejudice on the part of Ashkenazi Israelis in 1983, the year the story begins. When it came to education, crucial for success within the Ultra-Orthodox world, Sephardim, whether immigrants or born in Israel, faced a quota system, separate classes and higher tuition.


The cast is mostly male, although the roles of Cohen's daughter and a supportive relative are sensitively played. It's clear that politics in the Haredi world of the time was a man's game.


As Yigal, Yoav Levi is quick, sharp and volatile, with wonderful comic timing. Equally funny is Yoav Cohen in the role of Rabbi Moshe Sharvit, a mild-mannered scholar who gets swept up in the enthusiasm. These two actors, along with Shuli Rand, are terrific in wild scenes like the one in which they race to prepare their application to register for the election on the last possible day, an hour before closing time. To get signatures, Rabbi Moshe is shanghaied into giving brachas (blessings for health and success) to pious potential voters. I want to mention one other amazing performance, Yitzchak Peker in the role of Rabbi Gerlitz, a tiny, wizened, whispering old man with an intense gaze and an aura of spiritual power.


Shuli Rand's performance as Yakov Cohen, the main character of the film, is wonderful. He's a huge bear of a man, capable of both explosive rage and fierce focus, but often dissolving into the sweetest twinkle-eyed grin. Cohen's enthusiasm, naiveté, faith and devotion are at the heart of this inspiring, beautiful film.






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