What happens when Orthodox life becomes a prison rather than a haven?
Wordlessly picking at her Shabbat dinner, the young Chasidic wife clearly wants to be somewhere else.
It’s a powerful image, because Judaism’s all-encompassing combination of family, community and ritual is typically a comfort and strength.
But what if her life is a prison rather than a haven, and an obstacle to fulfillment rather than a conduit?
That’s the crux of French-Canadian director Maxime Giroux’s slow-burning and deeply empathetic drama, Félix and Meira, which traces the tentative friendship and romance between that frustrated Chasidic wife and mother (Israeli actress Hadas Yaron, of Fill the Void) and a non-Jewish man (Martin Dubreuil) who’s also at loose ends.
“I didn’t want to make a film that is critical” of the Chasidic community,” Giroux declares on the phone from Montreal. “What I want to say and show: Sometimes you’re born in a community where it’s not the one for you. Some people are raised in a community with a religion and it’s good for them. And other people want more diversity and their own path.”
Intrigued by the mysterious, insular Jews he saw on the streets and in the shops near his apartment, the non-Jewish filmmaker set about researching the Chasidim with the idea of writing a screenplay.
“Every movie I made is because I’m curious about a community or a people,” Giroux explains. “When you do a film, you learn about a subject. I was living in that neighborhood and knew nothing about that community, and I was curious about them.
Félix and Meira starts out as a wintry portrait of two lonely people, and never veers from the terrain of a character study. A pensive rather than a passionate film, it offers no
judgment of the Chasidic world and scrupulously avoids casting villains. To the contrary, Meira’s husband, Shulem (foreboding yet poignantly played by Luzer Twersky), is portrayed as unequipped to deal with his beloved wife’s decidedly unorthodox behavior and ultimately deserving of compassion.
“For me, it’s one of the most beautiful things — when you start to learn, you also start to learn there isn’t black and white,” Giroux says. “That’s why I make films, to understand my world more.”
The humanistic worldview that permeates every frame of Félix and Meira offers no hint that the filmmaker took a while to warm up to the Chasidim.
“It’s kind of natural for me, when I start to do a film, I have some prejudice or negative thoughts about the subject I’m going to explore,” Giroux acknowledges. “I thought this community was austere people who don’t want to talk to me and are really cold. The more I met people in the community, I saw that I was wrong.”
Oddly enough, Giroux confides he originally conceived of Félix and Meira as a comedy until he came to understand the delicacy of his subject.
“When we met people who left” their Chasidic community, “when they were telling their story, it was a big thing for them,” he recalls. “They lost everything. So I told the co-writer, ‘We cannot do a comedy. The subject of leaving the community, it’s too important to them.’ ”
Twersky was one of those who lost everything. He grew up in the Satmar community of Brooklyn and, in his early 20s, divorced his wife and opted for a secular life. His parents promptly disowned him. In addition to his excellent work on camera, Twersky served as technical consultant on Félix and Meira, helping ensure that Yaron’s performance as well as the clothes and interiors were accurate.
Giroux’s pivotal change to a more serious tone was clearly the right call. Indeed, you’d never know from his quiet, patient direction — where every gesture is freighted with meaning, and the removal of a wig is an act of heart-stopping intimacy — that it could have ever been anything else.
As further validation of Giroux’s approach, Félix and Meira was chosen to close the New York Jewish Film Festival.
“That was one of the most important screenings for me,” Giroux says. “That’s when I really understood that everything was fine. There were a lot of ex-members of the community” who “came to me afterward and said how accurate the film was.”
Perhaps Giroux is naturally enthusiastic, or maybe he is especially effusive because he’s promoting a film. One’s natural skepticism aside, it’s doubtful he’d voice something he didn’t believe.
“For me, Félix and Meira is more than just a film,” he says. “For me, it’s one of the most beautiful adventures I’ve had in my life.”
IF YOU GO:
Félix and Meira
Opening May 1 at Ritz Five Theatre
Second and Walnut streets, Philadelphia