starring Rob LaBelle, Jan Rubes, Allan Rich, Bill Meilen
written and directed by Nicholas Racz
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover The failure of The Burial Society is a subtle one. Initially, one is relieved to encounter a Canadian film made with technical proficiency: not only is it crisply and cleanly shot, but its director uses his lead actor's iconic schlemiel-ness to good effect. You sit back and wait for it to develop into something from there, but alas, it never really does; its initial effects are the only ones it has, and its total lack of visual and performative variety ultimately drowns the film in a tidal wave of monotony. In the end, I was surprised at how much I disliked The Burial Society.
The premise, while nothing to get excited about, offers at least the possibility of genre pleasures. It begins with Hebrew bank employee Sheldon Kasner (Rob LaBelle) being dangled by some associates over the side of a bridge; apparently, the Jewish mobsters who've been using his branch as a money-laundering front have had some funds misplaced--and Kasner's their prime suspect. Sheldon has to disappear, and fast, so he hatches a plot: first, he'll attach himself to the Chevra Kadisha, the "burial society" that prepares the dead for their final journey.
Then, he'll hijack a body, fake his own death, and flee the country with $2 million--a fine (if standard) set-up, but one that needs some vivid detail to fill in its generic skeleton, which neither the writer-director nor the cast is prepared to provide. For one thing, hyphenate Nicolas Racz is loathe to determine whether we admire or despise the mousy Kasner. At first, he sucks us into identifying with Kasner's desperation, but a few lying flashbacks in it becomes frustratingly uncertain. This, of course, doesn't stop Racz from trapping us within Kasner's point of view, forcing us to identify with him even when we're not sure about whether we want to, and confusing exactly what Racz wants to say.
This uncertainty is compounded by the perfunctory presence of the Chevra Kadisha. To read the production notes, you'd think that the film sheds new light on a Jewish ritual shrouded in secrecy, but in truth, it just plonks it down within the conventions of a thriller. There's no real exploration of the importance of these rituals and the people who partake in them--it's taken as read, and fails to imbue them with the significance that might have elevated the film to something beyond a confused thriller with a Jewish setting.
There is also the matter of LaBelle's performance, which seems perfect in its meekness until the script requires it to be more. In his initial scenes, he's the embodiment of a certain kind of timid company man, unsure of himself and unwilling to come forth with his emotions; the problem is he remains that way, even when the plot becomes highly convoluted and even the most reserved individual would resort to blind screaming panic. The result is that he remains a stolid, boring rock--so brilliantly, however, that he sucks whatever dynamism is left out of Racz's professional-but-uninspired mise-en-scène. The Burial Society is not a dishonourable film, but following its star's lead, it's unimaginative, and its lack of self-assertion ultimately wears you down to the nub. Racz and company, like a host of other Canadian dreamers, should be warned that it's not the money that counts, it's what you do with it. Originally published: January 31, 2003.