starring Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravich
written by Ariel Cohen
directed by Doron Paz & Yoav Paz
by Walter Chaw Hanna (Hani Furstenberg, The Loneliest Planet) is listening in while a council of elders gives her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) the option of leaving her for being unable to provide a son for years after the loss of their child. It's 1673 Lithuania. There's a plague, so there's a lot of death, and there's palpable fear in the air. Fear, among the other things it attracts, is irresistible to religion, and one day in this small Jewish community in the middle of a wilderness, the villagers discover that the plague has returned to the countryside and is encroaching on their isolation. Naturally, they retreat into religion. Ted Chiang has a short story called "The Seventy-Two Letters". It takes Hebrew mythology and wonders what it would be like if religion were treated as science. (And maybe, you know, it is.) The seventy-two letters are the name of God. You write them on a small piece of paper and roll that tightly into a little scroll. Insert it in the mouth of a mud effigy to infuse it with life. What materializes is a guardian, a protector, a golem that can be guided to the extent your id can be guided. Dario Argento played with a version of this in Phenomena; George Romero did, too, with Monkey Shines. The Golem is the true fana.
An outsider, Vladimir (Alex Tritenko), enters the village with his plague-ridden daughter and the warning that should the village's healer, Perla (Brynie Furstenberg), fail to make her well, he'll burn it all down. Perla is introduced in the film giving Hanna some sort of gynecological examination, telling her that her "seven bad years are over. It's time for your seven good ones." There's an old saying--I think it's African--that a woman can't choose her husband, but she can choose the father of her children. The implication in The Golem is that 17th-century Hanna has taken control of her reproductive potential and is choosing not to have children. It's possible that what Perla is doing as the film opens is giving Hanna an abortion. The amount of agency Hanna exercises in the picture is bracing, all the more so for it being handled almost discreetly. Hanna is a hero because she's a woman, not in spite of it: she's given to small emotions as she's given to higher motivations. I love, too, that Benjamin isn't the enemy of her liberty. He refuses to cast her aside for the sin of her not "doing her duty." He brings her books and encourages her to read. He loves her as an individual, not as his appendage. When doom comes to their village, Hanna rejects the council's decision to capitulate and summons the titular golem (Daniel Cohen) to defend them. When it comes, it comes in the form of her dead son.
There's a Stuart Gordon feeling to the prologue, from its saturated colour palette to its gothic milieu amidst piles of fresh carnage. DP Rotem Yaron has a lovely eye. He shoots Hanna in a shaft of triangular light early on as she's eavesdropping on her fate. Later, in a steel tub, he finds her impossibly pale in milky water, her red hair an indescribable contrast to the small square window and green curtains that frame her. Shafts of light proliferate as Hanna engages in her midnight studies. Nighttime interiors are warm sepia, alive with candlelight. It's really just gorgeous and matched by the picture's unapologetic Romanticism. The movie is a folktale, of course, but it also looks like one. It's what John Boorman's Excalibur visually aspired to. Watch a scene in the water, beneath a cliff. Then another where Hanna comes upon Vladimir and a group of plague doctors, disposing of bodies in the middle of a lush wood; countless vistas set the troubles of this world as small against the vastness of its backdrop. The beauty of The Golem's first half offsets the darkness and offal of its second as Hanna makes the Golem: a private and collective act, addressing her intimate lack as a means to address a social one. It's the Prometheus story--the god creating life from mud--but it's played out, fascinatingly, with a woman as the unnatural creator. I was reminded of Guillermo Del Toro's Mimic in this way. I mean that as highest praise.
The centre of the film and in nearly every shot, Furstenberg is remarkable. There's a transparency to her performance that carries with it suggestions of depths and volumes of pain. When she washes the Golem in a tub, singing it a simple lullabye, so many complexities cross her face. Directed by the Paz Brothers, the Israeli tandem also responsible for the exceptional found-footage film Jeruzalem, The Golem honours Furstenberg's work with long closeups and extended scenes, even with a mid-film discovery montage where Hanna decipers the 72 words to unlock the hidden name of God. It's a fun film, too, its final third anchored by violence and great practical gore effects as the Golem at last fulfills its purpose. What the Paz Brothers manage, though, is to never quite lose sight that their film is about Hanna's journey through grief; her actualization in an oppressive patrilineal theocracy; her courage to, at the end, perhaps allow herself to be hurt again. I've watched The Golem twice in as many days because it looks like a particularly handsome illustrated volume of fairy tales--and acts like one, too.