20 April 2001 | jhclues
Emotionally Involving Film
The self-imposed standards regarding matters of faith to which an individual must adhere, the priorities one sets, and giving precedence to one matter of importance at the expense of another are issues addressed in `A Price Above Rubies,' written and directed by Boaz Yakin and starring Renee Zellweger. After the birth of her first child, a son, a young New York City woman, Sonia Horowitz (Zellweger), struggles with emotional and sexual frustration as she attempts to cope with the extreme ideals of her husband, Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), an Hasidic Jew who holds God above all things, including his wife and their marriage. Mendel is a good man, a holy man, but in his youthful zeal to please God and live according to His Word, he woefully neglects Sonia, a fact to which he has been blinded by his religious fervor. His devotion to God is so all consuming that he is not only unable to meet, but is unaware of, the needs of his wife.
Sonia is a good wife and mother, a good person who loves God, but is simply incapable of effecting Mendel's degree of devotion and sacrifice. His concerns are of a spiritual nature, while hers are more immediate. Increasingly discontent and striving for a means through which she can rise above the stature of non-entity bestowed upon her by Mendel, her life takes a turn only when her brother-in-law, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), intercedes on her behalf. A jeweler by trade, Sender sees a value in Sonia that he likens to a price above rubies, but his efforts soon prove to be a mixed blessing for her, as ultimately her life becomes more complicated than ever.
Yakin is to be commended for his objective approach to this story; any judgment of those involved is left to God and the audience. He neither condemns Mendel for his-- what may be deemed by some-- excessive piety, nor does he absolve him of it's implications. By the same token, he neither condemns nor absolves Sonia for her actions. And by avoiding any subjective judgment of the characters, it heightens the impact of the film in that it forces the involvement of the individual viewer, who must then decide if what has transpired is appropriate or not. It's a very subtle and effective way of drawing in the audience, wisely employed by Yakin, as it maintains a balance in the film while allowing the actions of the characters to speak for themselves.
As Sonia, Zellweger turns in an excellent, understated performance, through which she makes you feel the exasperation of this woman in need of self-esteem and acknowledgement. There's something of Ibsen's `A Doll's House' in this story, for Sonia (like Ibsen's Nora) is not motivated by selfishness, but by the desire for her family to be able to function as a whole, and to be, herself, an invaluable part of that whole. It's a selfless pursuit for recognition and equality, rather than an ego driven quest for autonomy, and because of this it is easy to empathize with her. Zellweger does not play Sonia for sympathy, though it would be the easy road to take with this character; she opts instead for credibility in her actions and reactions, and succeeds with an honest portrayal that makes her entirely believable.
Fitzgerald also gives a solid performance as Mendel, a man you are neither able to like nor dislike, mainly because Fitzgerald does such a good job of maintaining the integrity of the character. And as Sender, Eccleston does a notable turn, as well, and again the filmmaker's objectivity in presenting the relationship between the brothers adds that ring of truth that makes the contrast between the two convincing.
The supporting cast includes Julianna Margulies (Rachel), Allen Payne (Ramon), Kim Hunter (Rebbitzn), John Randolph (Rebbe Moshe), Kathleen Chalfant (Beggar Woman), Edie Falco (Feiga), Shelton Dane (Yossi) and Jackie Ryan (Young Sonia). Yakin's delicate handling of the sensitive subject matter, as well as the unqualified non-judgmental tone of the film, puts the value of `A Price Above Rubies' at a cut above the usual drama that seeks to deal with the issues of religious ardor. The ending of the film may not resolve the matters at hand to every viewer's satisfaction, but it's honest, and consistent with the rest of the story. What minor flaws the film may contain can be easily overlooked in light of Zellweger's memorable performance, and the fact that it proffers an emotionally complex and involving experience, especially for the discerning viewer. I rate this one 8/10.