Jerusalem Film Festival : The Unorthodox

Writer and Director: Eliran Malka

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Whole political movements can start with just one angry man refusing to be treated as an underdog any longer. All around the world at some point or another working men have felt disenfranchised and voiceless, ignored by their ruling elite. Yet, with little political training they found ways to challenge the status quo. In Israel in 1983 Yaakov Cohen co-founded the Shas party to represent the Sephardim, ultra-Orthodox Jews who felt unrepresented by the Ashkenazi rulers.

Based on a true story, the film opens with print-shop owner Cohen lambasting a series of teachers at his daughter’s school only to be told by the headmistress that she’s just not suitable. Aggrieved as the Ashkenazi close ranks, Cohen uses his business to form his own political party. With just 56 days to election night his fellow-founders Yigal and the local rabbi need support, and so begins a campaign that will take the men to the heights but also force them to wade through the mud.

Eliran Malka’s debut film is tonally divided into two distinct sections; the first is a fairly light-hearted look at the political process of three clueless but likeable men attempting to start a new party. There is lots of comedy as the group try to charm the leading rabbis to bring their community support with them and learn the electioneering rules, all while balancing the need to generate support and maintaining their credibility. There is something of a hustle about this first section, a thrown together seat-of-their-pants affair that is stylistically influenced by directors David O Russell (especially American Hustle in terms of format and tone) and occasionally Quentin Tarantino.

But Malka also reaches into the depths of political life, showing the more brutal consequences of power, and as Cohen’s party goes from strength to strength on the national stage, its founder finds his own position under threat with a Caesar-esque conspiracy determined to oust him. It gives the rest of The Orthodox a bittersweet flavour, one that quite sharply underlines a personal sacrifice for the greater good and makes the audience wonder how many good men are cast aside on the road to power.

Shuli Rand is an engaging Yaakov Cohen, a man prepared to sacrifice his family’s stability and safety for a cause he believes in and refuses to be intimidated by the scale of the competition. Yet Rand doesn’t shy away from Cohen’s arrogance, not just in the grand speeches he practises in the mirror but never gets to deliver, but also the huge risks he takes both financially and socially to pursue his own agenda. In the second part of the film, Rand shows how painful betrayal is for Cohen and the horrible dilemma of choosing between his own political future and that of his new party.

A cast of secondary characters create the cut and thrust of local politics as well as the family pressures that Cohen largely pushed aside. Yoav Levi is particularly entertaining as the dodgy Bee Gees loving Yigal who forms a meaningful bond with Cohen but, always the wheeler-dealer, cannot help pursuing his own kind of politics. Shifi Aloni as Cohen’s sister tries repeatedly to protect the family from what she sees as the inevitable failure of her brother’s pipe dream, and although it is a small role it adds an interesting domestic angle that suits the rough and ready nature of the political campaign.

The nuances and deeper meanings of the film, as well as the different strands of Judaism in the The Unorthodox, may not mean much to the uninitiated but the tone of Malka’s 90-minute film will maintain your interest throughout. Essentially a David and Goliath story of working men trying to find a voice, its ideas will resonate with anyone who has struggled for representation and tried to fight the weakness of those who govern.

Release Date: 28 October 2018 

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