With the primordial clarity of fable, David Volach’s astonishing debut feature recalls that most terrible of Jewish parables, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, but without the biblical last-minute reprieve. Set in a contemporary Israeli ultra-Orthodox community and thesped by a trio of magnificent actors (including the grand old man of Israeli cinema, Assi Dayan), “My Father My Lord” unfolds in a self-enclosed universe blessed with fleeting epiphanies but overshadowed by immutable, incomprehensible laws. Pic, which deservedly snagged Tribeca’s best pic prize, combines great emotional accessibility with the sheer exoticism of a totally alien culture, making it an arthouse dream.
Helmer-scribe Volach knows this world from personal experience, having been born into an ultra-Orthodox family of 19 children and having lived and studied in such a Hasidic cocoon until the age of 25. His harsh rejection of its strictures, therefore, is all the more devastating for being delivered not with anger but with love.
The atypically small family of the revered Rabbi Eidelman (Dayan) consists merely of his wife Esther (Sharon Hacochen Bar) and his young son Menahem (Elan Griff). But whatever the family lacks in size it more than makes up for in warmth, each member expressing a wealth of interrelationship and affection in every glance.
Rabbi Eidelman bestows the same bemused fondness upon his wife and child as he displays for his beloved books. Esther lights up every time she sees her son, radiating a joy that is positively palpable. Menahem, a dreamy imaginative child, happily climbs all over the synagogue, watching his father teaching or observing a dove nesting outside the window, entranced with the wonders of nature and protective of all living things.
In strikingly tactile, almost sensual images, usually from Menahem’s point of view, shots of tea leaves floating in a saucer, shifting light patterns on synagogue pews and gradually inflated plastic water-wings constitute magical moments of shared intimacy.
If family members speak more eloquently with their eyes than with their tongues, such perfect harmony can thrive only in silence. Once Menahem starts to innocently question his father, the rabbi turns into an autocratic oracle of the Word, and the Word sounds the death knell for all curiosity, variety or change.
A photo of painted tribesmen becomes an artifact of idolatry and must be torn up. A devoted dog crouched by its dying mistress’ side is summarily denied a heaven, a soul or any importance. And, in accordance with an obscure passage from the Torah, a mother bird is shooed away from her chicks so they can be sacrified in the hope for more offspring of one’s own.
In failing to accord any importance to the phenomenological richness of nature or the immediacy of the moment (according to the rabbi, the whole universe exists solely to serve the observant Jew), Eidelman turns away from his son, unwittingly letting him die.
Volach gives wife Esther the last, mutely rebellious gesture of the film, as concisely expressive as all the privileged moments in this extraordinary 74-minute tone poem, which speaks louder than words.
Tech credits are superb, Boaz Yakov’s subtly glowing lensing as evocative as the stillness of Israel David and Alex Claude’s sound design.