Between The Temples


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Between The Temples
"Filled with awkwardness and tension, the film acts as a spotlight for all the actors." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In an age when most films either remain secular or cater to a niche market like the Christian Right, Between The Temples occupies a unique space, telling the story of religious people who are neither high-powered nor historic, and who have plenty of flaws and foibles. Regardless, faith plays a huge part in their lives, and, in the case of the hero, his career.

At times spectacularly memorable, at others a bit silly and/or disjointed, this a quiet, idiosyncratic work by writer/director Nathan Silver that leaves you thinking about it – even the parts that don’t quite seem to work in the moment – long after the credits roll. It fluidly runs between several tones and moods. It opens with an old-hat, sit-com-style pun-based misinterpreted conversation, then breaks that vibe as it veers from existential and religious meditations to social satire to erotic roleplay, all while weaving in a touching story of friendship.

Jason Schwartzman plays Ben, a cantor suffering from a personal crisis after the death of his wife, a novelist and alcoholic. In his quest to reclaim his life, he meets an elderly woman named Carla – played with vibrant confrontation by Carol Kane – who was his music teacher when he was a boy.

If the cast’s age and appearance supported the assumption that this is a romantic comedy, you might call Ben and Carla’s reunion a meet cute. It takes place while Ben is at the lowest of lows. He can’t even sing during temple service, which is the main part of his job, nor can he get a truck to run over him while he lies in the middle of the street. In what’s supposed to be his big return after a long absence, he literally flees the scene after numerous throat clearings. After running away from temple service, Ben ends up at a random bar, where the bartender helpfully loads him up with a series of mudslide cocktails. After the expected consequences of these beverages, Carla comes to his rescue, and he eventually recognises her as Mrs. Kessler.

Next thing he knows, she’s invading his life by asking him to train her for her Bat Mitvah, a ritual into adulthood usually reserved for young teenage women. While he refuses her initial request, she appeals relentlessly. And when the temple’s rabbi, a self-serving money-oriented leader, played by Robert Smigel, gives it the greenlight, Ben has no choice but to embrace the teaching process.

Filled with awkwardness and tension, the film acts as a spotlight for all the actors. Caroline Aaron and Dolly de Leon play Ben’s mother and her wife, who are big donors at the temple – a distinct acknowledgment of his privilege – and who are eager to see him in a new relationship. The ideal candidate seems to be Gabby, the rabbi’s daughter, played by Madeline Weinstein.

It all climaxes in a wonderfully chaotic dinner scene that continually ratchets up the tension as each character sees their expectations for the evening demolished. After the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere, Silver said the scene took two days to shoot and three weeks to edit. The Cassavetesesque exercise proves worth the effort, as the scene turns into a showcase for the entire cast. Even actors whose parts feel underwritten at times, like Weinstein, shine in this masterclass of uncomfortable situations.

Ultimately the experience of the film depends how much romantic chemistry you pick up between Schwartzman and Kane. The two are great on-screen together, but it doesn’t necessarily feel romantic, so it’s difficult to follow why, when Carla’s son comes to visit, he’s so angry about the relationship. The more things develop, the more the logic of the character trajectory feels shaky.

But part of what makes the film work regardless is that it poses questions like, “Do all male-female relationships have to be cast in a romantic light?” as well as the inverse, “Would this relationship automatically be presumed romantic if it weren’t for the age gap?”

Ultimately that’s how Silver has made the film memorable. Even when it doesn’t feel quite right, Between The Temples makes you think about the meaning of friendship, love and the sometimes uncertain middle ground between the two.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2024
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A cantor in a crisis of faith finds his world turned upside down when his grade school music teacher re-enters his life as his new adult bat mitzvah student.

Director: Nathan Silver

Writer: Nathan Silver, C Mason Wells

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Carol Kane, Caroline Aaron, Robert Smigel, Dolly De Leon, Madeline Weinstein, Matthew Shear, Jaden Waldman, Jacob Morrell, Laurent Rejto

Year: 2024

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US

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