The spiritual, historical and practical complications of being Jewish get a funny and touching workout in the deft ensembler “The Rashevski Tango.” Pic touches all the bases — from the generation that experienced the Shoah to those now in their 20s, from the circumcised to uncircumcised, from Reformed to Orthodox, from non-observant with inter-marriage to conversion and beyond — without breaking a sweat. Assured, splendidly cast debut by director Sam Gabarski is a crowd-pleaser sure to go from strength to strength with fests and specialized distribs.
Film finds plenty of ways to wrestle with the mostly unspoken question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” while celebrating the ironies and humor in the can of worms that opens. For instance,can one reject religion yet continue to embrace tradition?
Divided into clearly labeled chapters bracketed by a prologue and epilogue, film doles out info about its dozen or so major characters in manageable doses. Relationships between characters are complex and sometimes confusing to the protags themselves, but never to the viewer.
When Rashevski matriarch Rosa dies at age 81, surviving family members are so secular in their Judaism they’re not sure whether to conduct a religious burial. Rosa’s death is the catalyst for soul-searching across the generations.
At the reception after the funeral, fortyish lawyer Antoine (Hippolyte Girardot), a Gentile, becomes reacquainted with 27-year-old Nina (Tania Gabarski), the deceased’s granddaughter for whom he used to baby-sit. Although Nina is only half-Jewish — her father, successful shoe salesman Simon (Michel Jonasz) married non-Jew Isabelle (Ludmila Mikael) — she spurns Antoine’s advances, telling him she intends to make a Jewish family.
Intent on courting Nina, Antoine goes to see a rabbi who offers the observation that should Antoine convert, he’ll actually be more Jewish than Nina, since “true” Jewishness is transmitted by the mother.
Pic abounds in similar authentic conundrums, including that of Rosa’s grandson Ric (Rudi Rosenberg), a handsome and serious young man who once served in the Israeli army. This is a sticking point for his girlfriend, Khadija (Selma Kouchy), a Muslim Arab.
Story of tangled roots shows a light and easy command of humor that’s often described as “Jewish” but holds rewards for anyone amused by the endless paradoxes of human behavior. Director Sam Gabarski situates his characters in the frame with the same studied care as Simon and brother David (Daniel Mesguich) regularly play chess matches over the phone.
Thesps are a nuanced delight, with special praise for Jonasz as Simon and for Tania Gabarski (the helmer’s daughter) as Nina. Composer Michel Galasso’s Klezmer-inflected tango is a dandy representation of Rosa’s belief that a tango is as good as chicken soup — and a whole lot better than organized religion — in times of distress or sorrow.