Dybbuk Movies Then and Now

I recently came across the trailer for “The Possession,” (above) about a little girl who gets possessed by a dybbuk after opening a strange, Hebrew-engraved box she finds at a garage sale. The movie looks creepy enough – and I’ll admit I’m intrigued by the presence of Matisyahu, who seems to play some kind of young hasidic exorcist.  Hard to tell from the trailer if it’s going to be any good or if it will enter the ever-growing legions of campy, “so bad they’re good”  horror films. (The scene where the little girl ferociously leaps on top of Matisyahu indicates it may well be the latter…)

Watching this trailer brought to mind another recent dybbuk-themed horror movie: the truly awful “The Unborn,” which featured Gary Oldman, of all people, as an exorcist rabbi. (Check out the clip below and tell me that Oldman doesn’t seem totally embarrassed that he ever agreed to star in this stinker.)

The greatest of all dybbuk movies, of course is the transcendent “Der Dibuk,” the 1937 Polish film based on the classic Yiddish play by S. Ansky. Some background according to film historian Phil Hall:

“The Dybbuk” was shot in Poland, mostly in a Warsaw studio but also on locations in the countryside…The film records the life and culture of Polish Jewry in the years prior to the Nazi invasion, which took place two years after the movie was made…With its careful and rich presentation of religious ceremonies and social protocol, it offers what was literally the last look at a civilization which was nearly made extinct shortly after the production concluded…

(The) film has one truly stunning sequence which will hypnotize anyone who comes to it: during Leah’s wedding, a man in death’s make-up abruptly appears and engages her in a sensual dance. It is a brief but jolting moment in which the film’s theatrical roots grow strong: the sight of the nubile young bride swaying happily in the death-man’s grasp achieves a greater chill than any multi-million-dollar CGI effect. For that moment alone, “The Dybbuk” needs to be experienced.

You can check out the classic “dance of death” scene second from the bottom.

For my money, the best example of contemporary dybbuk-themed cinema is the fabulously ominous prologue to the Coen Brothers recent “A Serious Man” (featuring the great Fyfush Finkel). Click on the clip at the bottom and enjoy!


Der Golem Wishes You a Happy Halloween

In honor of Halloween, dig this: “Golem” – an unfinished film by the great Czech director Jiří Barta, best known for his stop-motion animated films made during the communist era. After the fall of the Soviet Union Barta was unable to find funding for his work – alas, he was only able to complete a short version of “Golem” in 1996.

Still, what remains of the film is brilliantly animated, foreboding, and deliciously creepy.  As you can see, it follows the terrifying visions of an old rabbi as he walks through the alleys of present day and old world Prague, which eventually morphs into stone like the mythical golem.

JRC members mark your calendars: I’ll be teaching a three session class on the legend of the Golem in January…


“The Interrupters”: This is Prayer in Action

Just saw “The Interrupters” – a new documentary that highlights the work of “CeaseFire,” an organization that works indefatigably to reduce urban violence in Chicago. I’m still sorting through the experience: it’s quite simply one of the most spiritually, politically and ethically powerful films I’ve ever seen.

I won’t say much more except that you need to find out when “The Interrupters” is coming to your town right now. (Chicago residents: it’s currently playing at the Wilmette Theater through Sept. 1.)

In the meantime, click above to see one of the many memorable scenes from the film. This is the force-of-nature-amazing Ameena Matthews – the daughter of a notorious Chicago gang leader and former drug ring enforcer who has found courage and strength in her Muslim faith and now works as a CeaseFire “Interrupter.” Here she leads a neighborhood prayer vigil for a young boy who was killed in the crossfire of gang violence – then confronts friends who are seeking revenge for his death.

Now this is prayer in action…


On Choosing Films of Faith

Can’t wait to see Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (above) which looks pretty awesome and is being hailed by many as a film with powerfully existential/spiritual themes.

In anticipation of “Tree’s” release, I recently surfed over to Arts & Faith’s “Top 100 Films.” Though I consider myself something of a film nerd, I was pretty humbled to discover I haven’t seen the majority of films on the list (and haven’t even heard of a fair amount of them either.)

Check it out yourself and see if you agree with the rankings. As for me, I have no argument with “The Passion of Joan of Arc” as #1, but what on earth is “Make Way for Tomorrow“- a minor 1937 comedy directed by Leo McCarey, of “Duck Soup” fame – doing at #6? And I’m sorry, as much as I love Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” I’m not sure I’d call it a spiritually themed movie.

And as for Jewish films, was “Fiddler on the Roof really the best they could do?  Granted there aren’t that many “Jewish films of faith” to choose from, but off the top of my head, I’d nominate “The Quarrel,” “Enemies: A Love Story,” or the Coen Bros’ “A Serious Man for starters…