CAPSULE: This is a comedy about the making of the first Yiddish production of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET. Eve Annenberg produces, writes, stars in, and directs this story of a director-by-protest trying to get several formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews to cooperate in the writing and performance of the play. The story has running some real comic possibilities, but few make it to the finish line and many of are lost to technical flaws. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
The title, ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH, leaves the content of this film in question. Is it just a production of the Shakespeare play in Yiddish or is it a comedy about the making of such a production like Andrew Fleming's HAMLET 2? Well, it is somewhere in between but more the latter. Eve Annenberg produces, writes, stars in, and directs this comedy about trying to redo ROMEO AND JULIET in WEST SIDE STORY fashion, but this time setting the story in the conflicts between the Satmar and Lubavitch Chasidic, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Certainly on the surface it is a funny idea. One does not think of these groups as being very violent people. Hearing Shakespeare rendered in Yiddish is a bit like hearing it rendered into Klingon. Yiddish is very close in some ways to German and it is odd to hear the poetry of Shakespeare wrapped around the language of impoverished Eastern European Jews. The timing of the release happens to be the same day, July 8, 2011, as that of Joe Dorman's excellent documentary SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESS, about the greatest Yiddish writer. It would be a delight to say that ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH makes a very good companion film to the documentary. Unfortunately, I am afraid that is not the case. Annenberg's film is marred by technical flaws that make it at times hard to follow and which certainly get in the way of the wit.
The film follows two story lines, one of the production of the play and one of the play itself. Now, the play is done in modern Chasidic dress against contemporary Brooklyn backgrounds. This means that there is very little visual clue which story line one is seeing. One can tell if the characters are speaking poetically we are in the Shakespeare play. English is spoken only in the outer story, but Yiddish is spoken more often in the outer story. And often Shakespeare's poetry will be given a Yiddish turn of phrase. Luckily most of the scenes from Shakespeare are familiar to many viewers. But when the scene is less familiar it can be difficult to know which story-line is being presented.
Eva (played by Annenberg) is coerced into directing this ugly dog of a play at the risk of losing her college scholarship. She is told by her advisor that she should love doing this play because she is Jewish. The advisor has little idea how different one Jew can be from another. Eva finds some Chasidim who left their communities and gets them to translate the play and then to act in it. The stories of these writers and actors are spiced with real incidents from that actors' and writers' lives. But here is another problem. Some of these people while superficially appearing pious are scam artists for whom fraud is the family business (as the subtitles blithely tell us). There are just too few decent characters here to identify with or even wish well. Incidentally, the film features some very artistically done nude scenes. However they could never be artistic enough for the actors' own families to be allowed to see. Seeing nudity is forbidden to Chasidic Jews.
The film features mostly first-time actors from Brooklyn Chasidic communities and much too often they simply do not project their words. What might be funny lines in English come out garbled or just difficult to hear. The lines in Yiddish are translated for the viewer, but too often subtitles are whipped onto the screen and off again without time enough to read.
I often wonder when I see a film that does not quite work and for which one person is the writer, director, producer, and actor--or more--if the problem is that one person performing all those functions is spreading himself/herself too thinly. There are natural conflicts between the people in some of these positions. A director should not always agree with an actor and out of these conflicts come a stronger film. Eve Annenberg was ambitious to take all these jobs to herself, but it might not have been in the best interests of the final film. As it stands I rate ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1632724/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper