God's Neighbors (2012) ****
Dir. Meny Yaesh
Starring: Roy Assaf, Rotam Zussman
Review By Greg Klymkiw
You know, if the Catholic Church had been a bit more on the ball, they might have tried to discourage raping little boys and instead worked a bit harder to inspire a genuinely devout cult, not unlike the youthful gang of Hasidim in God's Neighbors, the thrilling feature film debut from director Meny Yaesh.
What we see in this film, our mouths agape in a perverse blend of shock and admiration, are young, skull-capped gentlemen enforcing adherence to religion with their fists, baseball bats and yes, even guns. Between the warmth of kiddush, intensive Torah studies and seemingly endless prayer in the synagogue, Avi (Roy Assaf) and his buddies troll their Bat Yam neighbourhood like Alex and his Droogs in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. However, unlike Malcolm McDowell and his nadsat-spouting ruffians, these deeply religious fellows do not count rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven amongst their principal interests.
Non-observance is the disease. Avi and his buds are the cure.
Got Arabs driving though your neighbourhood? No problem. Got recent Russian-Jewish immigrants playing loud music on the eve of the Sabbath? Get your schwance out of the ringer and relax. Got shopkeepers ignoring Shabbat? Rest easy.
Avi and his band of Merry Hasidim will be at your service.
And service, they do indeed provide. With pleasure.
After beating some non-observers to an absolute pulp for disrespecting all that is sacred and holy, Avi proudly looks up at the apartment windows of the neighbourhood and proudly, happily shouts: "Good Sabbath!"
Good Sabbath, indeed! Our boys toke up mightily, grab a few guzzles of wine and settle in for a restful evening.
This movie is an absolute corker! Exciting, provocative and incendiary - God's Neighbors is a kind of Bratslaver Mean Streets by way of Rabbi Nachman's Goodfellas. These boys mean business. And in spite of my aforementioned slagging of the Catholic Church (and in fairness to the child-raping minions of the papacy), I think it's safe to say that no organized religion is immune from the incongruities between observance and violence. It's what makes the world go round.
That said, like any good coming-of-age story, Yaesh's terrific picture (like Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) gets to have its cake and eat it too - thrill us with violence, but make us pay for it later on.
At the movie's core is a love story that inspires our hero to journey from out of the darkest depths in order to break free of extremism's and discover the true power and beauty of both life and God. (Let it be said also, that the film rather ingeniously introduces Avi to the woman of his dreams and allows him to court her via an almost - for this film, anyway - de rigueur jaw-dropper of a meet-cute.)
Yaesh's exuberant direction is matched only by the electricity of his actors. Roy Assaf's juiced performance as Avi is a marvel to behold - he runs the gamut of emotions - he's kind, caring, conservative, funny, vicious and loving. He creates an indelible character that inspires revulsion and admiration from us in equal measure. Rotam Zussman as his gorgeous, free-spirited love interest is an added cherry on the ice cream sundae. She's fun, soulful and sexy. We want these two to be together, but thankfully, the great screenplay tosses numerous hurdles for Avi to overcome so that his road to redemption is a constant struggle and never guaranteed.
So get in on the ground floor of Meny Yaesh. This is going to be the first of many first-rate pictures we get from him. Besides, what other film would offer you the following food for thought: The next time you're holding a handgun whilst facing down a non-observant miscreant, you might actually think twice before uttering the words: "Go ahead, punk, make my Shabbat".
"God's Neighbors" is playing at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.
For tickets and info, click HERE.