Orthodox (2015)

First published in Sight & Sound, March 2016

Synopsis: London. Estranged as a boy from his father and the Jewish Orthodox community for his interest in pugilism, Benjamin Levy is now married to Rebecca (a converted gentile) with two young sons, and supplements the meagre earnings from his father’s butchery business with bare knuckle fights and standover work for gym owner Reg Shannon. After accidentally killing some squatters in an arson job undertaken by Reg on behalf of local Jewish businessman Goldberg, Benjamin is imprisoned for four years. While Benjamin is inside, Reg extorts sex from Rebecca. Emerging to find that Rebecca has committed suicide and his boys are gone, Benjamin take a job as a janitor at Reg’s gym, where he meets young part-Jewish Daniel who has fallen under Reg’s influence. Wishing to stay clean, Goldberg decides to sell some problem properties for development, and fires Reg – but Reg secretly rents the properties to Romanian ‘squatters’. Benjamin learns that his sons have been sent by Goldberg to be fostered in Israel. Daniel finds the Romanians all dead, gassed by a heater. When Goldberg informs Reg that this is Reg’s problem alone, Reg batters him. Reg tries to force Daniel to set alight the Romanians’ bodies, and is violent when Daniel refuses. Benjamin intervenes, and Daniel brains Reg. Benjamin heads to Israel, and Goldberg offers help to Daniel.

Review: Ex-boxer, ex-butcher, ex-con Benjamin Levy (a brooding Stephen Graham) is patting two German shepherds bound by a leash when he first meets Daniel (Giacomo Mancini), the young Jewish drifter who had briefly tied the dogs up outside while he shoplifted some chocolate. Soon Benjamin, himself a Jew living on the outer boundaries of an Orthodox community that has long since rejected him, will form a fatherly bond with Daniel, recognising something of himself in the boy’s marginalisation (and pugilistic interests). To suggest that those two tethered dogs are metaphors for Benjamin and Daniel, bound to forces of culture and criminality that restrain them from acting freely, might seem like a reading too far, were it not for the sheer number of significant cutaways in Orthodox (expanded by David Leon from his own 2012 short) from Benjamin’s tragic trajectory to images of caged canines. There are two symbolic ‘leashes’ that attach themselves to Benjamin: the bandages with which his manipulative, corrupting friend Reg Shannon (Michael Smiley) binds his fists before illegal matches, and the tefillin in which he wraps his arms and hands before morning prayers. These are the twin forces that have torn Benjamin (and his family) apart: a desire to fight which has set him on a path against his father and community, and his clinging to both a (failing) family business and religious tradition.

These opposing influences have led him to a series of contradictory positions: he has married outside the community, but his faith will not let him countenance his shikse wife Alice (Rebecca Callard) taking up work to supplement their hand-to-mouth existence, and so drives him paradoxically into more boxing and other illicit activities. Accordingly, Benjamin’s desperate attempts to keep his family – Alice and their two young sons – together are precisely what will drive them apart, as the bruiser ends up in prison, only to emerge four years later into a world of loneliness and loss where once again he is torn between devout and secular concerns. Meanwhile those same conflicts are seen playing out within respected community leader Joseph Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank) who, caught somewhere between benevolent patriarch and tyrannical godfather, tries and fails to keep his hands clean at the dirtier end of his property dealings, and is no less bound than Benjamin to the outsider Reg – and to the immorality that he embodies.

“You must avoid your past,” Goldberg warns Benjamin fresh out of prison – yet here the past keeps recurring and repeating, and mistakes once made by Benjamin, with their consequences very much persisting in the present, seem destined to be remade by Daniel. “I didn’t have a choice,” is Benjamin’s refrain – but in fact the film suggests that he is a Job figure whose moral agency and choice “to be a good man” are always with him no matter how dire his situation. Meanwhile Kelvin Hutchins’ time-leaping editing, through which Benjamin’s memories of  his family life – first as a young, bullied boy and then as a husband and father – constantly intrude upon his present isolation, suggests that the past, far from being something to avoid, can be a pillar on which character, however complex, is built.

Anton Bitel