The Golem

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Golem
"The story itself is simple but the presentation makes this an unusual and intriguing piece of work."

At a time when anti-Semitic narratives are once again gaining strength in Europe and academic debate is too often obscuring the brutal reality of how they affect people's lives, the Paz brothers' Faustian tale of power sought for the sake of defence could not be more timely. Steeped in ancient Jewish mysticism, it also provides an outlet for a cultural voice encountered in cinema all too rarely. The story itself is simple but the presentation makes this an unusual and intriguing piece of work.

Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) is a woman at odds with the role she has been given in life. She and husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) have lost a child. She loves Benjamin intensely and is thrilled that he refuses to divorce her as his father suggests, but she is concealing from him her use of contraceptive vapours - she just can't bear the thought of being at risk of such a loss again. Her nervousness is perhaps more understandable in the context of her community's fragile situation. The plague is sweeping across Europe. Being isolated and following traditional practices to preserve hygiene, the Jewish village is not affected, which convinces the local gentiles that they must be the architects of their misfortune. When gentile leader Vladimir (Alex Tritenko) discovers that his daughter is ill, he informs the villagers in no uncertain terms that he will have them all killed if they don't use their magic to save her.

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Stories like this often centre on men discovering some mysterious inner strength and resolving things with violence. This film quickly puts paid to the idea that untrained men can achieve much. Against so many skilled foes, the villagers' best hope is their intelligence - and their knowledge. Long resentful of presumed male authority over spiritual and intellectual matters, Hanna has immersed herself in ancient law. She is certain that she knows how to create a golem. Such a creature could protect them. But can she control it - even when it manifests in the guise of her lost little boy?

There are echoes here of Russian folk tale The Clay Boy, in which bereaved parents make an artificial child without understanding what they're getting into. One older villager, who has seen a golem before, tries to warn Hanna. But the relationship between creator and monster is unexpectedly nuanced. Whilst we see plenty of evidence of its monstrousness, Hanna doesn't fall into the usual stereotypes of mad scientist or fool. There's a sense that her awareness that she's the only one who can kill it means she finally has the power to release her love, and then we are watching Mary Shelley with her monster, having dispensed with the discomfited intermediary.

The film explores Talmudic ideas around violence, contagion and contamination, but with a modern sensibility. It's attractively realised despite the necessarily small location, and simple but effective costume work does a lot to help build atmosphere. The action scenes are often too fast-paced to follow but we're not intended to take much away from them beyond their brutality, and the focus here is really on psychological horror, where it's on horror at all.

In a curious way this might be seen as a science fiction film - a problem caused or brought about by (medical) science is resolved by what was understood as science at the time. It's a film that shifts genres as easily as its secondary antagonist shifts between dirt and flesh. A small budget means that, beyond the central ideas, it's scope is limited, and the final conflict feels rather rushed, but there are the bones of something interesting here and the Paz brothers have clearly laboured hard to imbue them with life.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2018
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A woman in a besieged medieval Jewish community looks for a solution in forbidden magic.

Director: Doron Paz, Yoav Paz

Writer: Ariel Cohen

Starring: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Adi Kvetner

Year: 2018

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Israel, US

Festivals:

Frightfest 2018

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