A small boy watches as an old woman’s body is wheeled into an ambulance. An Alsatian runs out of the apartment where the woman used to live, jumps into the vehicle and sits, whimpering, next to the stretcher; it has to be dragged away by a neighbour. Later that night, the boy asks his father if dogs have souls.
“No,” replies the father, an orthodox Rabbi of the Haredic community. He says this as a simple statement of fact: the “rules” are different for animals, to whom such concepts as “soul” or “heaven” do not apply in the way they do to humans – or, more precisely, the way they do to Jews who follow the word of the Torah: they are the only ones God looks out for.
This is one of the establishing scenes in David Volach’s superb My Father, My Lord, a film about the conflict between religious faith and humanity, played out on an intimate scale, through the simple story of a small family (there is no larger picture here, no grandstanding about the things that are being done around the world in the name of religion). At 72 minutes, this is one of the most compact movies I’ve seen in recent times, and my favourite among the contemporary features at Cinefan 2007.
The film begins with glimpses of the daily lives of the boy, Menahem, and his parents. The Rabbi is, in his own way, a fond father, but we immediately sense a distance between him and his son – for the Rabbi’s life revolves around his faith, the ritualistic acting out of that faith, and a literalist approach to his holy book, while Menahem is a restless, curious child whose engagement with the world goes beyond the circumscribed limits set by religion (as is the case with most children). The mother, Esther, is not as rigid in her beliefs as her husband is – one senses that for her, the true face of God is in her child – but on the whole the family is happy and content. Despite the Rabbi’s brief show of anger when his son brings home a photo depicting idolatry (“which goes against God’s will”), this isn’t anything like a simplified story about a religious fanatic lording it over his wife and son.
The family makes plans for a pilgrimage trip to the Dead Sea. Before leaving, the Rabbi comes upon a dove’s nest outside one of the synagogue’s windows; he waves the mother bird away, separating her from her children. Back in the van, he explains this action to his wife and son by quoting from a Torah passage that will seem obscure to anyone who isn’t familiar with the book – but part of the point seems to be that the fate of the young ones should be left in God’s hands, to do as He will. (The mother bird might come back, but then again she might not.) As we will soon see, this scene is a foreshadowing: when they reach the sea, the Rabbi asks Menahem to come with him to the men’s beach, leaving Esther with the women. This amounts to another separation of a mother from her child (though we make the connection only in retrospect) and the ground has been laid for tragedy – the Rabbi is preoccupied with his prayers, with “being wrapped in the arms of the Almighty”, as he later tells his wife, and therefore unconcerned with more mundane, worldly things such as the welfare of his son.
The catalogue notes for My Father, My Son mention that it was “conceived as a thematic dialogue with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue 1”. I don’t know if director David Volach ever met the Polish master or discussed matters of faith (or matters of movie-making) with him, but this film has many of the qualities of Kieslowski’s work. It’s quiet and gentle, made with stark simplicity, but hard-hitting in a way that other, more strident films on this subject aren’t. There are a few early sequences where nothing very significant seems to happen plot-wise, but which are invaluable character studies. And many scenes – notably a prolonged aerial shot of men praying on a beach while a little boy tries to get their attention and a storm brews in the distance – are filmed with an intensity that, in my view, approximates the fervour of the religious experience; it’s almost like the director’s camera lens is his God.
It’s admirable how Volach manages to set his tale in a very particular community (one of many sects within Judaism) and still give it universal appeal. On paper, there are many things here that could have a distancing effect on viewers around the world (Indian people sitting in an auditorium in Delhi, for instance). Take something as basic as the Jewish way of praying – the swaying back and forth, which an inexperienced viewer could easily find very funny. But Volach tells his story with such conviction and directness, makes his characters so recognisably human, that we aren’t allowed the comfort of thinking, “Well, this is a story about someone else, it doesn’t apply to us.”
P.S. The scenes where Menahem is made to participate in religious rituals made me think of the most impassioned passages in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Dawkins is angry throughout the book, but he gets positively Dirty Harry-ish when discussing the corruption of young minds by religion. “Unquestioned faith can be very dangerous and to deliberately plant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong,” he writes. "I want everyone to flinch when they hear a phrase like 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'."
In principle I’m in complete agreement with him, but from any practical viewpoint this is uselessly idealistic. Most parents quite naturally see their children as extensions of themselves (in fact, one of the main reasons to have children at all is to leave something of yourself behind when you’re gone) and there are countless examples everywhere of people being severely disillusioned or angry when their children secede from their views even in relatively minor issues, let alone something as sensitive as religion. It's pointless to expect that parents will stop drumming their own religious views into their younglings’ heads, or encouraging them to do mechanical things like folding their hands each time they see a temple, or to believe without questioning. One of the achievements of My Father, My Lord, a film that evokes complex reactions in a viewer, is that even while we feel disturbed about Menahem being religiously conditioned, the film's pace and matter-of-fact depiction of everyday life allows us to see such conditioning as a natural process within the framework of the family structure. There are no easy answers here.