TREMBLING BEFORE G-D
directed by Sandi Simcha Dubowski
starring Hiyam Abbas, Hend El Fahem, Maher Kammoun, Monia Hichri
written and directed by Raja Amari
by Walter Chaw "Leah" and "Malka" are a lesbian couple whose names have been changed and faces obscured (a fey conceit that begins to grate with the use of potted plants) to protect identities that appear, for all intents and purposes, to already be "outed"--at least before their families and their rabbi. David, after struggling for a dozen years with his homosexuality, returns to visit his childhood rabbi, a genuinely kind man whom we manage to forget once advised David to snap himself with rubber bands whenever he had a "gay" thought. Then you have Mark, HIV positive, English, and terminally unfocused, and Schlomo, so outspoken and demented that it's surprising we still muster sympathy when he gets a pathetically dissociative telephone call from his two decades-estranged father.
Presenting the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish version of Arthur Dong's superior Family Fundamentals, Sandi Simcha Dubowski's Trembling Before G_d is a documentary about orthodox homosexuals and their struggle against dogma that requires banning at best, forced psychological "re-education" at worst. Full of passionate intensity if not always clear on the extent to which these poor liminal souls were outcast (or really, the complete tale of what they stand to lose outside repeated silhouette tableaux of Jewish families enacting ritual), Dubowski's picture is buoyed by his exuberant and verbal collection of gay and lesbian interviewees though fatally undermined by a lack of context, alternative interpretations of the Torah that would ease the logical conundrum of these folks' existences, or any sort of balanced opinion from the conservative side of the aisle.
Casting light on the topic albeit obliquely, Tunisian filmmaker Raja Amari's hyphenate debut Satin Rouge details the decision of a middle-aged woman Lilia (Hiyam Abbas) to come out of her sexual shell in terms less political than universal. A nice thing, generally--but what Amari's restraint ironically achieves is an over-familiarity with story structure coupled with a laconic execution of formula that results in an essentially awkward version of the lightweight female empowerment picture we've been watching for decades. It is so unlikely and inconsequential that it skates along the razor's edge of irritating for much of its running time, though it only really goes over the edge at its insipid finale.
Until then it dances like the belly-dancers it adores, sort of clunky particularly by western standards, but suffused with all the weary intensity a woman thrice downtrodden (once by her Tunisian culture, once by the death of a beloved husband, once more by her maturity, coupled with her adolescent daughter) can gather while striking her mid-life cabaret pose. That Satin Rouge is ultimately just a weird mixture of Flashdance and The Bridges of Madison County is one of those things people fond of this kind of ridiculously frothy arthouse fare will trumpet as a positive.
Both Satin Rouge and Trembling Before G_d gain caveat for their subject matter: individuals at odds with a restrictive culture. But Satin Rouge provides a bracing measure of universality that bridges the gap between intellectual and visceral understanding. Although the divorce from family is a universal, what Trembling Before G_d does is convey the pain of that separation without providing enough basis for an intellectual compassion. Satin Rouge, for as rote and familiar as it is, does manage to sketch a fair picture of gender relations and the difficulties of actualization across cultural boundaries.
What the films share, however, are a vertiginous optimism, stubbornness, and joy for life in the face of what seems to be insurmountable decades of cultural prejudice and banning tradition. Just as it would be simpleminded to question why Lilia doesn't just leave Tunisia because of its unfortunate prejudice against her gender, it's dimwitted to wonder why the gays and lesbians in Trembling Before G_d don't seek out a religion more tolerant of their sexual orientation. It's a right for a member of a group to aspire to self-improvement and to enrich the society that they love, and while neither film entirely succeeds in convincing that their respective worlds are worth saving, perhaps it's enough that they convince their individual trials are worth telling. Originally published: October 4, 2002.