On Religion

Two new films successfully explore religious identity in two very different ways

Two films about religious identity open in Tucson this week, though neither of them features a guy getting nailed to a cross so he can inhabit magical cookies. Instead, James' Journey to Jerusalem is the story about a young man from the African village of Entshongweni who makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Divan is sort of about a search for a couch.

Both, strangely, are pretty good: James' is fine filmmaking in a sort of naïve 1930s tradition, and Divan is a sly documentary that plays sophisticated tricks with narrative.

Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe stars as the titular James, who wants to be Christian minister, so he leaves his tiny village to see the city where his God used to hang out.

Sadly, he is arrested along the way and detained by some unsavory Israelis who want only to exploit him for monetary gain. In fact, James would seem fairly anti-Semitic if it were made by a big Hollywood action star, but since it's made by an unknown Israeli filmmaker, it's all kosher.

When James is jailed on suspicion of being an illegal worker, the police basically sell him to an entrepreneur who specializes in exploiting illegal workers. Seeking only God and similarly intangible things, James is a bit surprised that his trip to Jerusalem is conditional on his cleaning the homes of the wealthy, but in good Christian tradition, he views this as a test of faith, and sets to the task of getting all the dust out of the corners of windows.

Meanwhile, the evil world of big-city Israelis slowly corrupts him. Instead of his ethic of love and turning the other cheek, he discovers that the prevailing morality of Tel Aviv is to avoid being a "frayer."

A frayer is anyone who is nice and kind and doesn't try to get over on people for cash. Everyone James meets informs him that the worst thing in the world is to be a frayer, which is strange, because he has a fairly lengthy holy book that tells him that the best thing in the world is to be a frayer.

Nonetheless, with constant badgering from his less enlightened employers, James learns that it's fray or be frayed. Thus, putting aside his quest, he starts to act more and more like the Israelis he meets, until he starts wearing nice suits and exploiting immigrants.

While the tale of the young man in the big city is pretty much pure Capra-corn, it's also well-done Capra-corn. This Mr. Deeds Goes to Tel Aviv plot is perfectly executed, and Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe is every bit as attractive, innocent and enticing as Gary Cooper, only with more smiling and less tuba playing.

A lot of the film works beyond its trite plot by virtue of its central motif: James mistaking the real city of Jerusalem for his idea about that city. It's a misconception that he's never dispossessed of, and it gives him the dignity that an old-fashioned movie protagonist needs to make us want him to succeed, even when he's fallen off the path and started acting like an urban jerk.

Mistaking a thing for the idea of a thing is also the theme of Divan, but there, it's handled with a post-modern sophistication that allows filmmaker and subject Pearl Gluck to get away with not only telling a story, but also making some subtle and surprisingly intelligent points about what counts as authentic.

Gluck was raised by Hasidim in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Hasidim, for those not from New York, Miami or Tel Aviv, are the ultra-orthodox Jews who formed their communities in the 18th century in defiance of the staunch conservatism of traditional Judaism. Strangely, they then became the staunchest conservatives in the Jewish world, and have proceeded to live a vaguely medieval life in their closed communities.

Hasidic women, like young Pearl, are not supposed to go to college, are supposed to get married by the time they're 18, and, most of all, are not supposed to become documentary filmmakers.

Gluck manages to defy these expectations, which is a good thing, because it allows her to bring us this witty and intensely engaging film, and also to do things like have a life and not marry a guy who wears a hat.

In the film, Gluck details her efforts to bring a family heirloom couch from Hungary back to her father in the United States. To some extent, she does this to gain her family's acceptance after rejecting their ways. To some extent, she does this just to make her movie. But to a large extent, she does this to explore what it means to be from such an enclosed community, to have such a strong religious identity and, ultimately, to try to find some sense of individuality within and apart from that life.

Notions of truth, authenticity and ethnic reality are twisted and reformed by Gluck's strange machinations concerning the couch, and are enhanced by a series of interviews. A half-dozen other Hasidim who have left the enclaves in which they were raised sit on the couch and talk, revealing at least a half-dozen different ways of dealing with their lives apart from their traditions.

Surprisingly, none of this is pretentious or staid. Rather, it's witty and entertaining and playful, while still extremely respectful of both the old ways and those who reject them.

If you're in the mood for something enlightening, check out Divan, and if you just want movies like they used to make them before we decided that wars and deficits were inherently good, then check out James' Journey To Jerusalem. Either way, it's a trip into something just slightly holier than what you'll find in the next Lethal Weapon film.