Oys and girls

Renee Zellweger makes a convincing Jewish feminist rebel in A Price Above Rubies

When you think about how some of the smartest, most surprising films about women have been made by men--and how, when a woman filmmaker manages to score a decent budget for her project, she does the same for stories about men--you start to realize: Directors should dare to speak for the other gender more often.

Few filmmakers know the ritual bonds and betrayals of men like blue-collar advocate John Sayles. He dipped into the mythology of genetic machismo with Lone Star and reminded us that the father eventually proves ghost to the man. Rewind 13 years, and you'll find Sayles on equally firm footing with Lianna, the story of a lesbian late bloomer.

Switching from the blue to the pink brigade, Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse made her feature debut with Proof, a brutally funny, sometimes twisted, but oddly tender look at the friendship between a blind photographer and the dimwitted stud who becomes his friend. The two men derive more (platonic) pleasure from each other than from the woman who wants them both. Moorhouse made male hetero affection a beautiful thing, something she never even approached in her increasingly wretched "women's pictures" How To Make an American Quilt and A Thousand Acres.

Add writer-director Boaz Yakin to the list of filmmakers who barged into the opposite sex's clubhouse and returned with an unsentimental, resonant understanding--not of women, but of one woman. A Price Above Rubies is not Yakin's first uppity exploration into a field many would insist he had no right to enter. His debut feature, the 1994 Sundance hit Fresh, followed one young black man as he made extra money after school delivering drugs for the black and Puerto Rican dealers in his New York neighborhood. When this young clocker--who studied the game of chess under errant daddy Samuel L. Jackson's tutelage--pitted one employer against another and had everyone either serving time or dead, the film shimmered with the power of fable. A young, almost Zen disciple defeats the infidels through wits and courage alone. John Singleton might have supplied truer grit to this inner-city saga, but paleface Yakin had the artist's instinct for great themes illuminating unknown lands.

Likewise, A Price Above Rubies--which Yakin describes as an adult fable--travels far into the tight tangle of a young Jewish woman's psychological, sexual, and spiritual crises living within a community and a tradition that doesn't recognize who she really is. In truth, our heroine, Sonia (Renee Zellweger), doesn't know who she really is, and the film ends gloriously, without providing her or us an answer. The director spends the entire length of this languid, dialogue-rich movie snaking a thread of identity through Sonia's small, sweaty palms, then yanking it away just as she tightens her grasp. The quiet thrill of the rambling journey--and of Zellweger's tough, appropriately tentative, and touching job here--comes in watching Sonia's grip get stronger with each effort.

The film begins with what may be its most unnecessary element--a flashback to the relationship between a preadolescent Sonia (Jackie Ryan) and her devoted brother Yossi (Shelton Dane). Yossi will reappear throughout the movie to witness the disintegration of Sonia's marriage to Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a sweet but emotionally confined yeshiva teacher, and the insidious influence of both religious patriarchy and a clan maintained by his steely sister Rachel (Julianna Margulies). Another perpetual witness is an apparently homeless woman (Kathleen Chalfant), a scarf-wearing sage who utters enough witty dialogue not to let us fuss too much over her portentous presence.

While Sonia's guardian angels don't add much to the overall story, they lend support to the frightened, feverish anarchy of a woman who dares challenge thousands of years of Jewish orthodoxy to keep a job she enjoys. From the very instant she gives birth and moves with her husband to the middle of Brooklyn's Hasidic community, it's clear she's not mother material. She's not much of an Orthodox Jew, either. She begins suffering from mysterious fevers that, she complains to a patient but dogmatic rabbi, are the result of a fire that's burning inside her, something she believes is caused by the fact that "I don't know where my body ends and my soul begins." Part of this flame could be explained as simple friskiness: Her devout husband is a dutiful, clinical lover who prays before and after sex and recoils when she plants passionate kisses on his chest during the act.

Along comes Mendel's brother Sender (Christopher Eccleston) to add a few drops of gasoline to the fire. A bottom-line kind of guy who recounts the day when he realized his conscience was no longer useful to him (Eccleston's droll, bored speech here is priceless), Sender disrupts Sonia's life by offering her a job as a buyer for his jewelry shop and an outlet for her passions. He indirectly catapults her into a scandal involving a Puerto Rican jeweler (Allen Payne) that sends her over the Hasidic walls and into the moat with the alligators of outside New York.

A Price Above Rubies is the mirror image of another film about a Jewish woman, a shop, and a man. Jan Kadar's 1964 The Shop on Main Street depicted a female button-shop owner who gives up her livelihood yet finds a firm male shoulder to lean on during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Sonia, on the other hand, gains confidence through her employment in a jewelry shop but in the process loses the support of most of her men--including husband, lover, and religious advisors. And although a similar story could have been told in the context of almost any patriarchal religion, the aura of Jewish challenges, explorations, and philosophical embraces of ambiguity lends the fabulous elements a gravity they wouldn't otherwise have. Although Sonia winds up questioning and, in the eyes of her in-laws, blaspheming God and his role in her life, she has clearly, Yakin points out, gained strength from the same philosophy she's rejecting. She's acquiring exactly the kind of wisdom about contradictory human nature (e.g., sometimes people want to free you and imprison you at the same time) that might be found in some ethically perplexing proposition from a Talmudic scholar.

Truthfully, Zellweger's New York Jewishness fades in and out, but the simple honesty of her conviction does not. (Just remember that Melanie Griffith played a Jewish woman in Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us, and Texan Zellweger doesn't seem like such a stretch.) Good as she was in The Whole Wide World and Jerry Maguire, both were essentially reactive roles she rescued by adding emotional range to her soft-spoken girlishness--she was Patricia Arquette with expressive eyes. A Price Above Rubies sends her on an arduous journey that requires a wide and sometimes conflicted variety of feelings, and Zellweger, along with the superb Eccleston as her lover and the haunted-eyed Glenn Fitzgerald as her husband, expresses them all in just the right places.

A Price Above Rubies may strike some viewers as farfetched. We're used to movies about ethnic urban neighborhoods having a grainy, shaky-camera documentary look, and Boaz Yakin bravely goes for an eerier, more elevated feel for his second film. Bravest of all was his decision to treat the lead character like a person first, a woman second. It grounds the movie in a measured intelligence that makes the film's profound themes feel authentic. This is one "adult fable" whose lessons you'll be processing long after the credits roll.

A Price Above Rubies.
Directed and written by Boaz Yakin. Starring Renee Zellweger, Glenn Fitzgerald, Christopher Eccleston, and Julianna Margulies. Opens Friday.

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