Category Archives: Drama

Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee

life of piI enjoy and respect the company of people of faith, as long as they are not functioning as missionaries. Let me give you an example. When I was principal of a Jewish high school, I learned that one of our very fine Jewish general studies instructors was living with someone other than his wife. It was a private matter until I discovered he was hiring our students as babysitters for his paramour. At that point, I asked myself: if I were a parent, would I want my child to be exposed to a situation which was contrary to my own value system by a teacher in a school that shared my value system. Flash forward to another teacher in the school, the Christian mother of five children who was an outstanding science teacher. In her spare time, she wrote poetry about the details of God’s creation and always emphasized the renewal of God’s sustaining powers on each day of a person’s life, a message very much consistent with the ethos of our Jewish day school.

I realized then as I do now that faith transcends religious boundaries. One can be a serious person of faith and that particular faith does not have to match yours. This is the thinking than permeates Pi Patel, the central character in The Life of Pi. Pi, an immigrant from India now living in Montreal, Canada, is approached by a local writer who has heard that Pi has an unusual life story that would make a great book, a story that will make him believe in God.

Pi’s religious faith is eclectic, developing over time. He begins life as a Hindu, then finds meaning in Christianity, and connects to Islam as a teenager. He even has an interest in the Jewish Kabbalah but has not yet embraced it as a personal doctrine. His religious faith is very much part of him as he moves through his unconventional childhood and adolescence.

We learn that his father owns a zoo, affording Pi an opportunity to feel comfortable with animals from early boyhood. In particular, he is fascinated with a tiger whose name is Richard Parker due to a clerical error when the animal was acquired. When his father decides to close the zoo and move to Canada where there are more financial opportunities, the family sets sail on a Japanese freighter. They bring the animals with them to sell them in North America. Tragically, they encounter a fierce storm which capsizes the ship and Pi’s family is killed.

Pi, who was on the deck when the storm erupted, is miraculously saved by being thrown into a lifeboat in which there is an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How Pi manages this situation is an arresting survivalist adventure in which Pi’s strength, intelligence, and emotions are tested.

After many days at sea, Pi is rescued and insurance agents visit to get his account of what happened. When his initial story is dismissed as too hard to believe, he offers a second, more plausible account. When at the close of the conversation with the novelist, he asks him which story he believes is true, the writer cites the story with the tiger because it is a better story. Pi cryptically responds: “And so it is with God.”

It is a fitting end to a narrative that defies reality. In a profound sense, Life of Pi is about accepting God in one’s life. The specific religion to which one subscribes is not important. What is relevant is the overall acceptance that things happen with a divine providential hand. Pi wisely tells the writer that “faith is a house with many rooms with doubt on every floor.” Furthermore, “doubt is useful; it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”

When all seems lost, Pi still senses that God is watching over him. Pi observes in retrospect that “even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching and when I was beyond all hope of saving, He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” Speaking as a sincere man of faith, he says in his moment of extremity: “God! I give myself to you. I am your vessel.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to try our best and then to acknowledge that the outcome is in God’s hands.

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The Accountant (2016), directed by Gavin O’Connor

accountant posterMy son-in-law is a special education educator focusing on autistic students. He helps kids and their families cope with a disability that manifests itself in different ways depending upon many idiosyncratic factors such as age and family background. Therapies that work in one situation may not work in another.

Although we don’t see the actual therapies that work in The Accountant, a thriller about an autistic man who cooks the books for a number of criminal elements, we do see him as a child manifesting autistic behaviors. At the beginning of the film, we visit Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire, a place where parents go for help with their autistic children. Christian Wolff, a young boy, is there with his parents to consult with a psychologist.

The father, a military man, sees the problem one way, his mother another. When the therapist discusses the boy’s sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, the father suggests exposing his son to more light and noise since this will better prepare him for a world that will not accommodate his son’s needs. The mother prefers to leave him at the institute where her son can learn how to cope with excessive light and noise and where he can be in calm environment, learn how to make eye contact with people, and make friends.

Flash forward to the present day in which Christian has a small accounting practice and derives his primary income from serving as an accountant for some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. Ray King, director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, launches an investigation to discover the identity of this man who enables the bad guys to avoid tax liability and to launder large amounts of cash.

It is fascinating to watch Christian behave as a high-functioning autistic. His home is devoid of luxury and there are no decorations. His behavior is strongly ritualized as we see him prepare dinner. He owns only one fork, one knife, and one spoon and every movement reveals an attention to detail. In a storage facility nearby, he has a trailer in which are valuable paintings, cash, multiple passports, and lots of weapons of all types.

Things change for Christian when he accepts a job for a company presumed to be legitimate. Having heard of Christian’s special accounting expertise, the CEO of Living Robotics, a high tech company specializing in advanced prosthetics, hires him to discover a huge financial discrepancy in the business. When he is on the verge of discovering that 61 million is unaccounted for, he is fired. But Christian cannot just abandon his work. His autistic sensibility drives him to finish the job, and the denouement involves lots of twists and turns before we find out the truth.

Although Christian Wolff is a fictional character, he still represents the general profile of a high-functioning autistic individual. His social interaction skills are weak, he has problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and is at times obsessive about his routines and interests. But he ultimately makes a valuable contribution to the world, albeit in an unconventional way.

Judaism regards the autistic person, or any disabled person, as created by God in His image. The Sages tell us that only one man was created to send a strong message that all men come from the same mold, yet each person is unique as God is unique. Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers observes that we should not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Everyone has something to contribute to the totality of society, even the disabled.

Tammy Ruggles, mother of an autistic child, observes that the Passover Seder is an evening of inclusion. There is a section in it known as “the four sons.” Here four different sons are described, one of which is the son who knows not how to ask. The son is emblematic of the autistic child who needs patience and love from a supportive family in order to function.

The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) shares the vignette of Rav Preida, a great sage, who repeated his lesson to his young student 800 times in order to be sure he understood the material. For that effort, God rewarded him with long life and life in the world to come. The story reminds us we have to be patient and be diligent in our efforts to help the autistic child and any child whose disability prevents them learning and integrating into the larger world.

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Breach (2007), directed by Billy Ray

breach posterIn the course of my career, I have occasionally met people who are morally inconsistent. One example comes to mind. He was a synagogue attendee and very charitable towards the institutions I represented, but he gained his wealth by selling drugs, a fact I only learned some time after my friend was incarcerated. Jewish law is very clear: you cannot accomplish a good deed by committing an immoral action. However, in the woof and warp of daily life, many people make ethical compromises to justify an affluent lifestyle and the good deeds that one performs through charitable giving.

Breach, a political thriller based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, describes the banality and paradoxical nature of a man who counts the rosary every day and at the same time betrays the country for which he works.

The story begins as Eric O’Neill, a young FBI employee, is recruited to work undercover as a personal assistant to Robert Hanssen, a 56-year-old veteran FBI agent, who is suspected of giving highly classified information to the Russians, even causing the death of several agents. Their relationship is cool, but over time, Hanssen warms to Eric and sees himself as Eric’s friend and mentor. Moreover, Hanssen is a devout Catholic and encourages Eric to reconnect to the Church. His behavior in the public and private spheres is conflicting and complex, but that is the nature of many people living on the edge of morality and sin.

Although the FBI has enough evidence to send Hanssen to prison, they prefer to catch him in the middle of an act of espionage. In that way, they can use the threat of the death penalty for treason to motivate him to reveal the information he has given to the Russians. They charge Eric with facilitating the sting. A cat and mouse game ensues as Eric tries to lure Hanssen into making a mistake worthy of a major arrest. Even though we know at the outset that Hanssen will be caught and convicted of espionage, and serve life imprisonment for his treason against the state, we still watch with fascination as Eric works to find evidence to imprison him for a long period of time.

A subplot of Breach is Eric’s relationship with his wife, Juliana. Eric is sworn to secrecy, so all Juliana sees is her husband under stress and acting in strange ways. Their marriage is tested when Eric cannot freely communicate with her and share his work with her.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, in a thoughtful article on the importance of husband-wife communication in marriage cites the Chazon Ish, a revered Jewish scholar, who writes: “Treat your wife as a left hand protecting the right one … and not an independent limb.” What this refers to is the Talmudic notion that the body of the husband and wife are joined metaphorically. It is a symbiotic relationship in which one nourishes and supports the other. For that ideal to be fulfilled, spouses must talk to one another and actively listen to each other. In spite of provocations, Eric and Juliana happily do listen to one another and overcome the challenges of the present moment.

Breach is a brainy thriller. There are no car chases, explosions, or fight scenes. It is a well-painted portrait of a complex man willing to sacrifice his country to satisfy his own needs. What specifically those needs were remains unclear. Perhaps money was his key motivation or perhaps he was motivated by his own ego, a desire on his part to show how flawed was the intelligence community of the United States. No matter what his motivation, his story reminds us that even outwardly good people sometimes do very bad things.

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Ricki and the Flash (2015), directed by Jonathan Demme

ricki-and-the-flashThere often is a price paid for celebrity, especially for family members. I read of Hollywood movie stars who have dysfunctional kids getting into all sorts of trouble and trafficking in drugs.

Nothing is simple and we know life is complicated, but the suggestion clearly exists that parents who make their personal fame a priority are often not available for their own children. As a result of their frequent absence, these kids find other role models and succumb to negative influences.

Ricki and the Flash depicts this kind of conflict. We see Ricki as a middle-aged rock star who has made a choice between fame and family. She has chosen fame.

One telling exchange between her ex-husband, Pete, and her reveals her thinking at the time she left the family. He observes: “I thought we were your dream.” She responds: “I can’t have two dreams.”

What brings Ricki into contact with her ex is a phone call from him informing her that their daughter, Julie, is having a nervous breakdown after being abandoned by her husband. Pete feels that at this moment of crisis, she needs her mother’s presence.

Ricki, who has very little money, immediately scrapes up the necessary funds to fly from her California home to Indianapolis to be with Julie. Julie at first is not happy to see her estranged mother, but the relationship soon warms and Julie begins to come out of her depression.

While with Julie at the family home, Ricki also reunites with her two other children, sons Daniel and Josh, both of whom barely have a relationship with their mother. Moreover, Pete’s current wife Maureen is upset at the upheaval in the home caused by Ricki’s arrival. Maureen and Ricki’s first meeting is fraught with tension and ends with Maureen asking Ricki to leave.

Things turn for the better, however, when Maureen writes a letter of apology to Ricki and invites her to Daniel’s upcoming wedding. The wedding becomes the occasion when Ricki and her kids finally understand and appreciate one another in spite of Ricki’s being absent from their lives for so many years. Ricki cannot make up for the years of absence; but her abiding love of her children, especially manifested in times of crisis, enables mother and child to still love one another irrespective of past disappointments.

Jewish law is very clear on parent child relationships. Parents have an obligation to teach their children morality and ethics, to give them an opportunity to learn a vocation, and to teach them how to swim, which means how to swim through life and navigate all the challenges that confront a child growing up.

I remember great Torah teachers of mine who would spend time every week studying with their children in the evening, even though the kids were being taught in school. The parent desired face time with his child, and did not want to delegate all of his child’s education to the school.

Moreover, there is a custom in Jewish homes of blessing the children on the onset of the Sabbath on Friday nights. The parent stands in front of the child, utters the priestly blessing showering Divine protection over his offspring, and at the blessing’s conclusion embraces the child and plants a kiss on his or her face. The ritual is a reminder that there is no substitute for face time with a child.

Although it is sad to observe Ricki’s dysfunctional relationship with her kids, there is some comfort in knowing that parents and children can have a rapprochement even after many years of neglecting their relationship. Ricki and the Flash reminds us that even though family ties never break, they weaken when a parent is absent. There is no substitute for a warm embrace.

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Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997), directed by John Madden

mrs-brownWhen I was in eighth grade, I invited Dolly, a girl I knew through my local JCC, to my junior high school. I wanted to show her the building in which I took great pride. I had nothing in mind other than to show her my classrooms, but my visit after the school’s regular hours caught the attention of the school janitor who reported my unconventional visit to the principal. The next day I was summoned to his office and given a reprimand for escorting Dolly by myself after school. What I did was give the appearance of impropriety, and the incident gave me a visceral awareness of how appearances can often telegraph the wrong message about a person or event.

Mrs. Brown deals with the consequences of not considering how things look and, instead, just doing something because you want to do it. The film opens with information about Queen Victoria, who mourns her deceased husband, Prince Albert, long after he has died. Prince Albert spent lots of time with his servant John Brown, and the Queen’s advisors summon Brown to court to spend some time with the Queen and hopefully convince her to return to public life.

Things do not as planned, however, when Brown becomes an important man in the eyes of the Queen, who perceives him as a good friend and loyal subject who wants only to protect her. As a result, Brown foments tension at the court between himself and the royal family and the Queen’s long-time advisors. Even members of the public, the press, and politicians begin to resent Brown’s influence over the Queen. Soon rumors abound that Brown and the Queen are having an affair, all of which are unsubstantiated.

As the Queen’s popularity drops, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli encourages Brown to persuade the Queen to return to her public duties, arguing that this will please the people and be good for the monarchy in England. Brown reluctantly acquiesces to Disraeli’s request, but the Queen views his suggestion as a personal betrayal. As a result, their relationship begins to fracture, but their abiding friendship for each other weathers the storm.

Jewish tradition and Jewish law is very much concerned about the appearance of impropriety. The classic Biblical case is the woman suspected of adultery. If the husband warns his wife not to be alone with a certain man and she goes against his will, there is a suspicion that during the time that they are alone, they have been intimate with one another. This suspicion generates a ritual in which the woman has to drink a certain mixture of waters to determine her guilt. It is a trial by ordeal.

Another example of the Bible’s concern for impropriety is the discussion that Moses has with the tribes of Reuben and Gad who want to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan instead of entering the Promised Land. Moses permits them to do so as long as they join in war to conquer the Land of Israel. If they do that, then they will be “cleared before God and before Israel.” The Talmud derives from this a general principle that one has to consider not only how God, who knows all, sees an action, but how an act will be seen by people as well.

The story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with John Brown illustrates the consequences of impropriety, especially in the arena of public life. Being in the public eye creates enormous social pressure to be above suspicion of any kind. The implicit message of Mrs. Brown is to be sensitive to how one’s actions can convey mistaken impressions no matter what one’s station in life.

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Captain Fantastic (21016), directed by Matt Ross

captain-fantasticAs an educator for many years, I have encountered parents who opt for home schooling instead of enrolling their children into a traditional school. Sometimes the motive of the parent is to save the cost of private school tuition; at other times parents truly feel that conventional schools are often inferior and do not sufficiently tap a child’s intellectual potential. For these parents, home schooling offers an alternative and parents begin enthusiastically to educate their own kids at home.

Problems with this arrangement arise as the child gets older and needs more specialized education. It is rare that parents are skilled enough to meet the child’s growing academic needs, and home schooling becomes very labor intensive. Academic requirements often exceed what the average parent can deliver.

Captain Fantastic tells the story of parents who opt for home schooling and do not give up as their six children mature and the demands of home schooling increase exponentially. They understand that home schooling is by its very nature unpredictable and idiosyncratic, and adversity does not lessen their enthusiasm for it.

Ben Cash and his wife Leslie live with their six children in the Pacific Northwest. They are principled people who reject the American capitalist way of life and, instead, create for their children a learning environment where independent, critical thought is valued. Ben and Leslie teach their kids to think out-of-the-box, to question everything, and to learn skills that will enable them to survive in all kinds of challenging environments.

Life changes when Leslie dies leaving Ben totally in charge of his children’s education. His sister Harper tries to convince him to enroll the kids in a traditional school, but to no avail. His in-laws suggest the same, but he refuses their suggestion and their aid.

As time goes on, the children begin to question their father’s philosophy and his parenting skills. One even accuses him of being complicit in his mother’s untimely death. Family unity begins to unravel until Ben finally has an epiphany that his parenting practices might lead the children to very dangerous places. He then understands the importance of balance in navigating between the real and academic worlds.

In Jewish tradition, the educational ideal is for a parent to be the child’s teacher. The Bibles adjures parents: “ And you shall teach your children.” Proverbs states: “Listen, my son to the ethical instruction of your father and to the Torah of your mother.” But then reality asserts itself when parents are not capable of imparting wisdom because their own knowledge is limited. The Talmud tells us that when this happened historically, the Sages established schools to take on the parental task of educating children. Ultimately, what resulted is a synergy between parent and school in which both educated children and shaped their adult identities. The key is balance; one influence should not cancel out the other. Both contribute to the development of the child’s total personality.

Captain Fantastic, which refers to the charismatic father sensitively played by Viggo Mortensen, is an appealing character. It is clear that he loves his children dearly and wants the best for them. He shares their pain and their joy, and his kids recognize the love that underpins every interaction between them and him. Problems, however, arise in the crucible of life experience when educational theory meets reality. It is then that their relationship is tested.

The film reminds us that sometimes the ideal has to be tempered with real life demands in order for people to navigate life intelligently. Living a life without compromise of any sort may be intellectually satisfying, but also may be emotionally draining and even dangerous. The key to successful parenting, in the Jewish view, is to encourage children to lead a balanced life.

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Room (2015), directed by Lenny Abrahamson

room-posterThere is a story in the Talmud about a sage, Rabbi Elazar, who made disparaging remarks about an ugly man, whereupon the ugly man said that he was created ugly by God and that was his lot through no fault of his own. The sage regretted the unkind words he said and an overwhelming sense of remorse plagued him. The sage died soon thereafter.

The takeaway lesson learned is that one should not be critical or judgmental about a person who suffers indignity through no fault of his own. On the contrary, one should try to embrace such a person and make him feel a valued member of the community. The tragic story of Ma in Room illustrates one of the consequences of holding someone accountable over events over which one has no control.

The film begins with Jack, a five-year old, saying hello to all the things in his room. He shares the room with his mother who plays with him and does exercises with him. We learn that Old Nick provides food to them and basic toiletries but does not permit them to leave the room, locking it with a padlock code. The cubicle is soundproof and has no windows except for a skylight. They have a TV, but it is on a closed circuit with limited programming. Jack thinks of the people on the screen as aliens. In spite of these limitations, Ma teaches Jack, educating him as best as she can.

We soon learn that at age 17 a man told her he had a sick dog that he wanted her to see. The man then abducted her and kept her locked up in a room. She had a child, Jack, with him and has been trapped in the room for seven years. Jack knows nothing of the real world outside, and has trouble conceptualizing information about the real world that his mother is giving him now on his fifth birthday.

Desperate to escape, Ma hatches a plan, which involves Jacob being rolled in rug and pretending he is dead. Then Ma asks Old Nick to bury him outside in the real world. The scene of Jacob traveling in the truck bed and seeing the real world with leaves and trees for the first time is a powerful emotional awakening for Jacob, one that the viewer viscerally experiences. It is a magic cinematic moment.

Ma and Jack’s release from years of forced confinement is not the end of story. The narrative continues with their adjustment to freedom and trying to lead a normal life. Jack gets vaccinated for the first time and has to wear a mask and sunscreen while he builds up his immunity to the environment. His grandfather and grandmother embrace their long lost daughter, but her grandfather has difficulty looking at his grandson, the result of his daughter being raped by her abductor.

This brief but disturbing interchange between father and daughter depresses Ma because she feels her forced incarceration, which occurred through no fault of her own, has stigmatized her and her son. It is an unsettling reality, which she now has to endure.

Judaism has a different approach to the victim of rape. Yoni Lavie, a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, observes that it is important to reassure a rape victim that there is nothing wrong with her and she should feel no guilt. She does not have to repent for she is still “pure, pristine and righteous.”

Room is a difficult film to watch because it portrays people in extremely dire straits. However, ultimately it reminds us that no matter how bad our situation may have been in the past, we can, with patience and kindness, still move beyond the most horrible of realities.

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