Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rashevski’s Tango

Family is where most people first learn their religious identity and cultural traditions. The Rashevski family was long dominated by their powerful matriarch Rosa, a secular Jewish Holocaust survivor who loved the tango. With her passing, the Rashevskis suddenly find themselves reevaluating their assumptions, like just how Jewish they really are, in Belgian filmmaker Sam Garbarski’s Rashevski’s Tango (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

After the horror of the concentration camps, Rosa and her brother-in-law Dolpho essentially turned their backs on religion. By contrast, her husband Sammy embraced Judaism, leading to an irreparable breach with the Rashevski family. Though the faithful Dolpho tries to bring him to Rosa’s deathbed, Sammy (now an Orthodox Rabbi in Israel) refuses. After her death, the family receives shocking news—the secular Rosa bought a plot in the Jewish cemetery.

As a result, the Rashevskis, whose past observances of faith were almost exclusively reserved for Passover, start to question their Jewishness. Rosa’s sons Simon and David never gave religious identity much thought. Simon married a Christian wife, Isabelle, but told her not to convert, claiming it would never satisfy those who might object. Their daughter Nina decides she can only marry a Jewish man, even though she is not truly Jewish herself. Antoine, a friend of her rebellious brother Jonathan, seriously considers converting to win her heart, which would technically make him more Jewish than her. As for David’s son Ric, after serving in the Israeli Defense Force, he now pines for Kadijah, the immigrant Muslim girlfriend who dumped him.

Altogether, it is hardly surprising the Rashevskis are experiencing a minor religious identity crisis. At least they all still have tango as they grapple with their faith and conflicting emotions at important family gatherings, like funerals, weddings, and the first Seder Dinner following Rosa’s death.

Garbarski and co-writer Phillippe Blasband create largely credible family situations, except for the awkward Ric-and-Kadijah romance, which feels like an artificial subplot merely tacked on to give the film politically correct appeal. Still, most of the relationships are sharply written and nicely fleshed out by a talented ensemble cast.

In particular, Michel Jonasz and Daniel Mesguich nicely capture the dynamics of two grown brothers with years of shared history between them. Jonathan Zaccai also brings out unexpected depth in Simon’s grizzled son Jonathan, while as his comrade Antoine, Hippolyte Girardot supplies an easy charm and a bit of welcome dry humor in a mostly serious film.

Tango is a thoughtful family drama that does not shy away from its moments of pain and uncertainty. Despite the occasional use of stock characters, Garbarski avoids outright caricatures, dealing with the Rashevskis’ issues of faith with considerable honesty. It opens in New York this Friday (9/11) at Cinema Village.