Rashevski's Tango (Menemsha Films, NR)

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dvd_tango.gifThe title refers to the belief of the departed matriarch that, no matter how bad things get, you can always tango.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you want to start an argument, ask what it means to be a Jew. And if you really want to get into it, ask what is required to be a proper Jew. Director Sam Garbarski raises these questions and more in Rashevski's Tango, using the death of the matriarch of an extended Belgian Jewish family as a plot device to set the remaining family members off on a series of arguments and explorations and explanations of their own relationship with Judaism as well their expectations for how other Jews should live.

They certainly are a varied lot. The matriarch, Rosa Rashevski, was a Holocaust survivor who avoided religion and rabbis and did not have her sons circumcised, but also purchased a burial site for herself in a Jewish cemetery. Her divorced husband is an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who refuses to come to her funeral because he doesn't approve of the secular lifestyle. Her son David is married to a Christian woman and they argue about whether he should be buried in a Jewish cemetery, although would mean that she can't be buried next to him.

Rosa's grandchild Nina has had such a secular upbringing that she needs to be told that it's not customary to view the body at a Jewish funeral. But she wants to marry a Jew, leading her Gentile boyfriend Antoine to visit a rabbi to investigate the possibility of conversion. Much to his surprise, Antoine learns Nina is not technically Jewish because her mother is a Gentile, and that even if she goes through a conversion ceremony, the Orthodox won't recognize it because she's female. But Nina believes firmly that she is indeed Jewish while he can never be, at least not for the purposes of marrying her; she's holding out for a man raised as a cultural (although not necessarily religious) Jew. In the meantime, however, she's happy to sleep with him.

Meanwhile, grandson David served in the Israeli army but back in Belgium falls in love with a French-speaking Muslim woman. He says he wants to meet her family but when she refuses he resorts to ethnic insults: "I won't hit you -- I'm not an Arab." And there's a lot more situations like this: The characters often seem less like real people and more like little cardboard figures created by the scriptwriters (Garbarski and Phillippe Blasband) to represent different attitudes toward Judaism. No character is developed at any length and the film is arranged in a series of brief scenes which serve to preclude emotional involvement. It's like a series of sketches each designed to convey a point or raise an issue, and as soon as that is accomplished the director is on to the next point or issue.

The title refers to the belief of the departed matriarch that, no matter how bad things get, you can always tango; the dance serves in several scenes as a means of bridging the gap between characters. Rashevski's Tango is beautifully shot by Virginie Saint-Martin and contains many nice moments, but as a drama it's less than involving; there's way too much talk by characters so poorly differentiated that it's easy to mix them up. However, if you're interested in the philosophical questions raised by the various stories, it may prove fascinating. The film could also serve in an educational setting as a springboard to discussions about the issues faced by the different characters. On the other hand, people who take religious questions seriously may be disappointed by how easily they are resolved on celluloid, giving the whole film the feeling of a sitcom determined to bring all the plot strands to improbably happy endings by the end of the 97-minute running time. | Sarah Boslaugh

Rashevski's Tango is distributed on DVD by Menemsha Films. Transfer picture and sound is excellent, and the film is in English, Hebrew and French with English subtitles. The only extra on the DVD is the film's trailer.

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