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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Movie Review: "Mendy"


I had low hopes for this movie but was instantly shocked at just how good it was. "Mendy" isn't a movie for everyone, but if you are familiar with the Chasidish community and Williamsburg in particular, you will instantly recognize what is going on here and why it matters. I've been out of New York for about fifteen years now, and what's happening in this movie post-dates me; I've only read about it from a distance. What we are looking at is the "Off The Derech" situation, where a young person in a very religious community has somehow fallen from grace. In this case the problem is that Mendy is heterosexual (!) which may not seem like a trespass to ordinary people but in the ultra-insular sphere of Williamsburg, any display of sexuality is considered gross, taboo and strictly forbidden.

What's so great about this movie, and what earns it five stars in my book, is that the characters are so finely drawn. Unlike most depictions of religion in Hollywood (with the exception of Christian independent film), "Mendy" doesn't portray a religious upbringing or a religious community as "bad." As Mendy himself says, in so many words, you have to look at the world in shades of gray and not in black and white, and the film successfully does this. Instead of preaching about the right way to live by having a single character espouse it, the film shows us a small group of complicated people, some better, some worse, but all of them trying to get by.

The portrayal of the Israeli drug smuggler was frightening and I could easily imagine this scheme playing out across the lives of many young people who exist in an underworld where drugs and prostitution have become ordinary. It was laughable and sadly recognizable when the Israeli and the Chasidim needed to get their business done before Shabbos, as illegal as their business was. Like - they didn't see any contradiction there, nothing to even talk about.

My favorite scene of all, and the one that makes the entire show worth watching all by itself, is the Shabbos dinner where the excommunicated Chasidim (Satmar and Lubavitch alike), the transvestites, and OTDers sit around and trade cholent, challah, gefilte fish and insults.

I can't help but note how frequently Black people are characterized as the spiritual soul of a Jewish movie, and this one was no exception, as Bianca saves Mendy from a life of "constantly playing a part" by putting him in touch with his body and his self. Oddly, the body is the very thing that ultra-Orthodox Judaism cannot reconcile with spirituality...but it is the key to bringing Mendy back.

Really an amazing movie, again not for everyone, but I found it profound and disturbing and beautiful.


All opinions my own.