A Trip to the Movies
A Trip to the Movies

One of my most favorite movies of all time is the film, “Law and Disorder,” which was made some forty years ago, starring Carroll O’Conner (of “Archie Bunker fame) and Ernest Borgnine. The movie told the funny and poignant story of a group of Brooklyners who form a volunteer police unit to deal with the growing crime in their middle-class neighborhood.

Only many years later, after I made aliyah, did I discover that the writer of the movie was none other than Tzvi Fishman, author of the wonderful novel, “Tevye in the Promised Land,” and the popular book, “Kuzari for Young Readers.” Fed up with the fast life in Hollywood, where he sold four feature-film screenplays while on his way to a successful career, Fishman underwent a miracle-filled journey of t’shuva, returning to his Jewish roots. Moving to New York City, he taught screenwriting for several years at New York University’s prestigious School of the Arts Film School, gradually weaning himself away from the movie profession until he realized that his mission in life was to live a life of Torah in the Holy Land, using his skills to spread the light of Torat Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish People through his easy-to-read blogs and books.

Last week I had the pleasure of watching Tzvi’s new movie, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman,” at a screening in Bet El. It is no secret that many of the most advanced computer technologies have been invented in Israel. Now another innovation can be added to the list - a “Torah Movie.” The fact that Rabbi Shlomo Aviner was at the screening and spoke before the film is an innovation in itself.  I can’t think of any feature-like movie in the past which Rabbi Aviner has approved, let alone praised so highly.

Fishman’s film is based on several famous stories of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. While Rabbi Aviner is certainly not a hassid of Rebbe Nachman, he said that his fable-like stories are the inheritance of all the Jewish people, and that they have the power to inspire people to come closer to Hashem. “This is the movie that we have been waiting for,” Rabbi Aviner declared. “From beginning to end, it is filled with holy content, holy words, holy images, while being interesting, and a pleasure to view.” In his lecture, he spoke about some of the themes in the movie, like being happy with one’s lot, trust in Hashem, and the importance of joy in one’s daily service of G-d. But before I comment on a few of the themes in more depth, allow me a few observations about the cinematic side of the movie.

I don’t see as many films as I used to, but my brother in America has won several awards for films he has made, so I know a little something about the media. Fishman’s film isn’t a blockbuster like “Harry Potter” or the other special-effect extravaganzas of today. The movie was made on a very modest budget, $160,000 compared to the $160,000,000 budget of “Harry Potter” and the $1,600,000 budget of standard Israeli films which are subsidized by government film grants (almost always awarded to filmmakers with anti-religious or pro-Arab agendas).

But Fishman, and the talented crew he assembled, succeeded in giving the film a beautiful look, with a deep cinematic texture, coupled with magnificent scenery, magical locations, and a wardrobe as convincing as any Hollywood film. The film transports the viewer to a fairy-tale time and place, filled with wonderful cast of kings and princes, magicians and peasants, and you never think for a moment that you are watching a film which was shot almost entirely in Israel. The film’s director of photographer, Jorge Gurvich, is one of Israel’s most respected cameraman, with a long line of films and awards to his credit. Francoise Coriat, in charge of sets and wardrobe, comes from a rich background of theater and her gifted work makes the film look like a high-budget production. The editing by Andrea and Guiseppe Platania keeps the action flowing.

Especially remarkable are the special effects they achieved with such a low budget. I thought that all the locations were real, but Fishman confides that many were filmed in a studio using computer graphics. The enchanted forest in the story, “The Worldly Son and the Simpleton,” is as scary as anything in “Harry Potter.” I was wondering where Fishman found a spooky forest like that in Israel, and only learned later that it was all done in a ten-meter square studio by using a technique called “green screen” which is the way they do things these days in Hollywood. In addition, the film (in English with Hebrew subtitles) is filled with familiar Rebbe Nachman tunes by Yisrael Dagan and upbeat songs by the popular Udi Davidi.

The star of the movie, Yehuda Barkan, is one of Israel’s most popular actors, and he is absolutely brilliant in his portrayals of the king in two of the stories. Every gesture of his face, every look in his eyes, burst with emotion. In the famous story of the “Turkey Prince,” when his son freaks out and starts acting like a turkey, the face of the king fills with anguish and he cries out, “What did I do wrong?  Maybe I should have spent more time being a father and less time being a king.” It is one of those magical movie moments where the actor becomes every parent in the world. Along with the wonderful performance of Yehuda Barkan, the young actor filling the role of prince (Fishman’s son, Amichai) did an amazing job acting lik a bona fide turkey. His return to normalcy has a powerful message for every mother and father.

And Fishman’s old Hollywood friend, Daniel Dayan, a baal tshuva himself, is more than convincing in his multiple roles in the movie, whether he is playing the Jewish Sage or the simple Fixer who is happy with his lot. By the way, the beard that flows down to his waist isn’t a prop – it’s his!

Fishman himself did a very professional job producing and directing the movie. Because the film is composed of separate stories, it doesn’t keep you nervously biting your fingernails all the way through to the end like in a thriller or action movie. That obviously wasn’t the goal. Rather than trying to arouse the senses of the body, the movie tries to stimulate the brain. That’s what I mean by it being a “Torah Movie.”

In addition to being fun and entertaining, the film is an ideal vehicle for triggering discussions about the deep Torah themes in the stories. And that’s how Fishman intends to use the movie. He’s busy setting up screenings in community centers, yeshivot, ulpanot, and regular high schools, where one or more stories of the film will be screened, accompanied by a lecture and discussion. He even has a website for the movie (www.rebbenachmanstories.com) with a special “Teacher’s Guide” designed to help stimulate class discussion.

For instance, the story, the “Turkey Prince” is about dealing with children who rebel to a disturbing extreme. Like many of our kids today, the prince throws off his princely cap and starts acting in the most upsetting way, driving his father to tears. How do we relate to kids like these? After all the magicians and wise men in the kingdom fail to cure the son, the Jewish Sage gets down under the table with the youth and begins to act like a turkey too, in order to forge a relationship with the boy. In the course of their friendship, the Sage sings a song that teaches us to accept our kids for who they are, and to highlight their good points, rather than yelling at them for not being perfect like we are: “I am what I am, what I am is me. When I look at myself and see in me, all the very good things that I see in me – I’m pleased with myself with what I see.”

Another poignant tale in the film is the story, “A Matter of Trust,” about a rich and famous king who feels empty inside. While the consumer world around us wants us to think that the secret of happiness lies in materialism, the clear message of the story is that true happiness can only be attained through being happy with one’s lot.

The famous story of the “Treasure” also emphasizes that we all have a treasure within us, and that we needn’t journey far and wide searching for our identities and pleasures in foreign pastures, but that we have everything we need right at home in the treasure chest of our Jewish soul.

This same theme also appears in the longest of the four stories, “The Worldly Son and the Simpleton,” which mirrors the two differing camps which characterize the Jewish People today – the religious and the secular. In the tale of two childhood friends who go in different ways, we see the tragic fall of the Worldly Son who seeks fame and fortune in pursuing the wisdoms and cultures of the world, only to become an adamant disbeliever in G-d. Instead of finding joy in his great intellectual achievements and skills, he comes to depression and despair, seeing, under the microscope of his analytical reasoning and logic, the shortcomings in everything he does. In contrast, his old friend, the Simpleton, is always happy, valuing the simple things in life.

But in this happy and optimistic movie, which I can highly recommend for all ages, this tale of “The Worldly Son and the Simpleton” has a happy ending too - only I won’t spoil the fun by revealing what happens. You’ll have to see for yourselves.