A partnership between the Zelnik family and the De Angelo farm has gone back at least one generation. Over a welcome dinner, the rabbi and patriarch of the Zelniks (Pierre-Henry Salfati) speaks tenderly to the landowner, Elio (Ricardo Scamarcio) about his own father. Elio spends some time crafting a kippah out of a napkin for the rabbi’s young son, sitting in on services and a drash the rabbi delivers to his students.
But not everything is a bed of roses. The farm is in financial crisis; last season brought a freeze; and thanks to this partnership, Elio isn’t grafting his product but instead selling them to the Zelniks. (Something which perturbs the Italians since the Zelniks aren’t even going to eat the fruit. :P) It’s an especially difficult sell, too, because going by the Bible, all etrogs have to be without blemish. Some of the Zeknik clan sit outside and inspect every one under the proverbial microscope.
Local business people are vying with Elio to try and buy the land, but Elio doesn’t want to sell. A former artist who now spends his leisure “almost” buying paintings at auction houses, he returned to the farm from Rome when his father died. Now, beholden to his father’s memory, he feels he can’t part with a stick of it.
In the Zelnik camp, one of the rabbi’s children finds herself in a similar situation. Esther (Lou de Laage) is a 26-year-old unmarried woman who is losing her faith. She comes to Elio’s attention when she asks him to use his computer. Curious as to her purpose, he finds she’s been posting messages on a forum for conflicted Orthodox Jews: those who want to (or already have) left the tradition.
Esther’s life is repressive. When Elio jokes with her about discussing Noah and the flood, thanks to a sudden deluge, she explodes about how angry that story makes her. God is seen as the unquestionable creator of every facet of human life, and then He punishes us for his imperfections. Elio says he admires her father’s “rigorous” lifestyle, but Esther’s experience is of narrow suffocation and being ostracized from the outside world. She wants to leave and she’s terrified of leaving—and there’s a bit of a ticking time clock since her parents are actively matchmaking for her.
This trip to Italy provides the unusual experience for Esther to occasionally step away from her family. Alongside the controversial companionship of Elio (alone with a man not of her family!), Esther sees new parts of town, attends parties with his staff, and talks honestly and openly about matters she could only type about in forums previously. She and Elio bond over their shared sense of entrapment, and go to a secret place, which they explicitly call the Garden of Eden, and then share a moment under an apple tree. 😛
The film is usually pretty subtle, and mostly eschews Hollywood versions of dramatic confrontation (except a scene where Esther’s mother scolds her for hiding from a suitor, and Elio argues with his staff.) There were a couple of elements that made me roll my eyes. I get that it’s funny that Elio randomly had a statue of a saint in his truck, which he had to cover up before the Zelnik family climbed aboard, but c’mon. What, is it common for Italians to be carting life-sized saint statues around all the time? 😛 Also, there’s a scene where Elio (accompanied by Esther) makes a sale to some clueless vacationing Americans, and all I could think was, wait, how does Esther know English?
But, on the other hand, we got this arresting scene. Esther is preparing food with her female relatives, and one of them mentions a young man who climbs out a window and gets hurt when attempting to secretly meet with someone. “Well,” Esther’s mother says blithely, “it was Shabbat.” Well, the meaning goes, God punished this boy for disobeying the rules. Bully for him.
Distressed, Esther flees the room and finds a secret place to make a supplication to God: let me forget about you, let me stop believing in you, and there will be no hard feelings. I’d spent the movie being low-key distressed that Esther essentially wanted to leave Judaism, but in this scene, I was like, oh please, God, let this daughter go! Let her suffer no more.
This brand of religion—the oppressive rules, the unquestioning cruelty—is an mystery to me. Earlier in the day, I was at Adas listening to the post-Shabbat Mendelsohn scholar, Lila Kagedan, an Orthodox rabbi and public health professional serving as a chaplain and bio-ethics expert. Her talk centered around COVID-19, and how lower socio-economic classes and racial minorities in particular suffered due to having to work while others were able to shelter in place.
We talked over social determinants of health, and that data that shows poorer people, and Black people, disproportionately suffer in the U.S. for having less access to good housing and transportation, grocery stores, language and literacy skills, etc. We looked at the texts, and determined it was not God’s will to blithely turn away, but instead we had to act for the betterment of all.
As the prophet Amos said in 5:23-24: “Space me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes,” aka it’s not enough to just pray and celebrate God. “But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream.” It’s up to us. Or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (Regarding ways for congregants to dip a toe in that stream, Rabbi Aaron was on hand to encourage involvement in Adas’s social action committees!)
In Esther’s world, arguably also in Elio’s world, there’s a lot of ritual but not much action. Their two stories end on an ambiguous note. Esther writes and mails a letter to her father, apologizing for leaving him but she must forge her own path. She then gets on the train to France, where I assume it would be easier to leave, in a country where she knows the language and some of the geography. As for Elio, he returns to his “Garden of Eden” where his father placed some chairs, explicitly looking towards their land and away from the sea. In the parting image Elio turns a chair around and sits on it, suggesting he’s finally ready to turn his life in a new direction.
For another review of this film, Dina Gold wrote about it in Moment Magazine! The JxJ festival continues until May 21. You can find more of my coverage in the “Annual Events” tab.
Also, May is Jewish American Heritage Month! 😀 For upcoming events, both online and in person, click here.