Dir; Maria Schrader. Starring; Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch. TV-MA. Color. 4 Episodes. 213 Minutes.
I do not judge anyone based on their religious beliefs. Other than Scientology which is a straight up cult, whatever you choose to worship is cool with me as long as you are not hurting me or somebody I care about. Then there are those factions in certain religious groups that are far more extreme than the majority of believers. Islamic extremist groups, polygamist Morman preachers, and most televangelist to name a few examples of the bad sectors of those who “LIVE TO SERVE GOD” wink-wink. One group that is not commonly referenced but can be equally oppressive, particularly towards women, is the Hasidic Jewish community. Based on a true story, the four part series “Unorthodox” showcases how a young girl’s life is ruined as a result of the wishes of stuck up old people convinced her self-consciousness is not hers to own.
“Unorthodox” jumps back and forth on either side of the year that would change this particular woman’s world. When we first meet Esty (Shira Haas) we are introduced to a girl desperately trying to escape. Currently living in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York, Esty flees a group she has known her entire young adult life. With the help of her former piano teacher, something women are not supposed to do in this culture, she is able to retreat to a new home in Germany. Yes, a person who was raised with the constant reminder of what happened to her ancestors during the holocaust every time the family has dinner would rather disappear to the country she is suppose to despise. Why?
Flashback to when Esty finally became of age to be married. She is called an orphan, even though she is not and knows it. Her birth mother fled the Yiddish community shortly after giving birth as she refused to live in a culture where the woman is simply a vessel to do the man’s bidding. Esty’s grandmother is distraught because an arranged marriage has not yet come to fruition. The fate of the family’s history hangs in the balance over the success of her ovaries. Enter her mother-in-law getting with another Hasidic family and essentially gifts the girl to a young man named Yanky (Amit Rahav). Knowing what is looming in the near future, both Yanky and Esty are nervous during their first “private” meeting together with both families waiting in the kitchen. It is their duty to have kids and continue this archaic community way of life.
Cut back to Esty attempting to establish a new beginning after arriving in Germany. With a bare minimum of funds and experience of the outside world, Esty slowly begins to discover a life while also being haunted by her upbringing. She swims in a lake with new friends yet still cannot take off her dress in public. Her love and talent for music is fermented by a chance run in with a teacher known as professor Karim (Yousef Sweid) who discovers the girl hiding out in his universities’s orchestra theater. For some reason he takes Esty under his wing, even buying her a ham sandwich during their first sit down. Not exactly kosher and surprisingly it does not make her sick which is what she was programmed to believe.
The snag comes when Yanky begins searching for his disappeared bride. Why in the world would a woman who is literally coached on the proper way to receive sperm want to take off?
The community Rabbi in New York assigns Yanky’s cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) with the task of tracking down Esty. Once the two arrive in Germany it become a desperate search for the girl because she is pregnant. All the while we are shown glimpses of the wedding and marriage that led to this culmination of events. Not exactly a celebration of happiness. Cousin Moishe is slime that cares nothing for the girl he is searching for while Yanky is clearly uncomfortable with this entire cultural situation. There is humanity towards Esty in Yanky’s heart-of-hearts which manifests in both good and bad ways.
This four part limited series is damn near perfect. The performances, production design, and cinematography are all exquisite. My only knock is that “Unorthodox” is often over-edited. So many angles with the camera moving in on scenes then coming back out then coming back in. Could be series creator Anna Winger simply over-shooting things. Could be lead editor Hansjorg Weibrich feeling forced to throw in as many cuts as possible. Not a huge deal and ultimately does not take away from this otherwise excellent piece of film, but the flaw does exist.
All of the other elements aside, this movie is top to bottom a triumph due to the magnificent performance delivered by star Shira Haas. The gamut her character must endure is far deeper than standard adjectives to describe. Esty’s life is flipped in so many directions in such a short time that it is amazing she came out of the proverbial tunnel with any sense of sanity. There are several amazing bits from Haas in each installment. But that one scene, you will know it when you hear it, that one scene alone where she bares her soul is the stuff of legends. This tiny actress from Israel is a force I have not seen the likes of in quite a while.
Being an atheist I do not attempt to speak on any religious traditions as long as they are peaceful. I am a humanist, and that is what makes “Unorthodox” so relatable. Several critics complained this piece did not delve into the backwards and oxymoron culture that is Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. They are wrong. “Unorthodox” is about a character that will not be suppressed in her world while also respecting those that choose to conform equally despite the practices being questionable.