Some films tell stories. Others answer questions. The best do both.
Tackling questions personal and political, philosophical and pragmatic, “Brothers” defines what makes a film different than a movie — it educates while it entertains. That said, “Brothers” is not easy to watch. But it’s even harder to ignore.
At its core, the 2008 Hebrew language film from Switzerland, directed by Igaal Niddam, looks at the ever-growing divide between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel, focusing on the hotly debated issue of mandatory military service. “Brothers” shows the battle fought on two fronts: in the courtroom, as a yeshiva is brought to trial for denying the military proper access to its enrollment records, and in a family, as two brothers are reunited after a 25-year separation that saw each go to opposite sides of the religious and political spectrum, and the world.
Dan (Micha Celektar) is a staunchly secular kibbutznik, a sheepherder who, after fleeing Argentina when his communist roots were revealed, firmly planted himself in Israel. His brother Aharon’s (Baruch Brener) path out of Argentina led him to a Brooklyn yeshiva, where he became one of the most respected rabbis and lawyers in the community. When he’s brought to Israel to defend an elderly yeshiva founder, he’s suddenly confronted with a long-lost brother — and no easy way to bridge their gap. As Aharon says, “The abyss between us is deeper than darkness.”
The questions come flying from Dan — Why didn’t Aharon respond to his letters? Why did he wait 25 years to break the silence? — but Aharon, brought to Israel as an attorney, not a brother, is tough to crack. He wants to reconnect, but a wall of religion separates the two.
The trial doesn’t help, as Aharon becomes the national face of Israel’s haredi Jews, unwilling to accept state laws over biblical ones.
“Brothers” succeeds in presenting these rifts in a way that’s easy to understand. Though a viewer completely unaware of the political and religious landscape in Israel would have difficulty following, anyone with a working knowledge won’t be confused, especially because the film often blatantly packages its message in little tidbits of monologue.
Conflicted when he uncovers the yeshiva’s shadowy business tactics, Aharon even speaks to God: “What comes first, Torah or state? How can one believe in one without sacrificing the other?”
While such conceits often come off as too obvious (couldn’t the same message have been conveyed through sharp dialogue?), “Brothers” doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming propaganda — though the questions presented here are big, they remain questions. There are no easy answers; Niddam knows that the power in film lies in creating discussion, not ending it.
Subplots involving Aharon’s bonding with Dan’s soldier son, Dan’s wife conducting the kibbutz choir and Aharon’s growing affinity for his nemesis prosecutor (wonderfully executed by Orna Pitussi) keep “Brothers” from being too single-track minded, but the religious/secular divide remains squarely at the center of the film.
In a brief conversation with Dan’s son, Aharon says, “It’s absurd, but it’s hard to be a religious Jew in the Jewish State,” to which the young man responds, “It’s not easy being secular either.”
Things may never be easy; “Brothers” aims to create understanding so that, just maybe, things won’t be so hard.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)