I learned everything I know about New York's Hasidic community from watching Robby Benson in The Chosen and Melanie Griffith in A Stranger Among Us. So who am I to judge A Price Above Rubies, Boaz Yakim's magic-realist parable (think I.B. Singer) about a Hasidic woman who has a lot of trouble with Hasidic men? Goy vay! Still, the movie seems less than totally authentic. Yakim, who was a yeshiva student until he was 15 years old, appears to have gone straight from the Torah to Gomorrah--i.e., Hollywood. Actually, A Price Above Rubies is an independent film, but it keeps taking the easy way out of tight spots, dramatically speaking. And the story, ultimately, isn't so different from Hollywood's take on the Hasidic community. Real-life shiksa Renee Zellweger plays Sonia, a woman who seems to have been chosen by God--or Satan, or somebody --to rebel against Hasidism's old-boy network. Her husband, Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), is a devout Talmudic scholar--so devout that he refuses to mix pleasure with business when he's making love to his wife. "We're not alone," he tells Sonia. "We're under the eyes of God." For Sonia, Mendel's piety is the Hasidic equivalent of "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am." Buried beneath a mountain of taboos, her body has begun to erupt with volcanic passion. But where to direct the flow? Luckily, God--or Satan, or somebody--provides an answer in the form of Sender (Christopher Eccleston), Mendel's not-so-pious brother. A diamond merchant, Sender offers Sonia a job that will get her out of the house. All she has to do is submit to the occasional shtupping. Sex with Sender, it turns out, is the not-so-pious Hasidic equivalent of "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am," which means that Sonia has to venture outside her religion to find what she's looking for. A pity, because when Yakim brings on Ramon (Allen Payne), a Latin lover/sensitive-artist type, the movie sinks into a morass of Hollywood-ish clichés. Zellweger, who was so effective in Jerry Maguire, uses her puffy face and swollen lips to suggest a woman who, left hanging on the vine, is passing from ripe to rot. I didn't really buy her as a Hasidic woman, but I suppose that's the point: Sonia doesn't buy herself as one either. Still, I'd like to see a movie someday about a woman who doesn't want to leave the Hasidic community behind, not because I think Hasidic women should stay where they are but because I think the ones who do may have something valuable to teach us.
A Price Above Rubies teaches us things we already know. And yet, for those of us who never went to yeshiva, it's as close as we're likely to get to a Hasidic show-and-tell. Yakim never achieves the Singerian magic realism he's after, but the movie is nevertheless valuable for the realism it does contain.