Category Archives: Film and TV locations

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

Happy Birthday, Emily Bronte!

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte was born on July 30, 1818. Her brother Branwell, an aspiring poet and portrait painter, composed one of the very few images of her. His sister Emily was painfully shy, hardly speaking with anyone outside the family. But she was a bold artist.  Her novel, Wuthering Heights, is still startling in its passion and social critique.

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Branwell  was the only son in the family and great things were expected of him. I think poor Branwell suffered from what we might now call Preacher’s Kid Syndrome: a need to act out, just because his father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, was such an upright man. Branwell studied painting, in between bouts of drinking, taking opiates, and getting fired from various gigs as a tutor–for which his father had taken great pains to educate him. In around 1834, at age 17, Branwell painted the group portrait above. It is now one of the most treasured works in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the centerpiece of a special Bronte exhibit I saw last spring.

Why is this rare painting folded in the middle?  We’re lucky that it still exists, damaged as it is. The portrait, together with the profile of Emily, traveled to Ireland with Charlotte Bronte’s widower after her death as a young bride. It appears that a heartbroken Arthur Bell Nicholls shoved the portraits of his beloved Charlotte and her sisters on top of a wardrobe in an Irish farmhouse, out of sight and out of mind.

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The churchyard where all the Brontes are buried (except Anne, who died at Scarborough and was buried there) is just outside the door of the parsonage. Living there, walking every day past the graves of so many loved ones who had died so young, must have been unbearably sad.

By the time Charlotte died, shortly after her marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Branwell, Emily and Anne were already dead. Most likely they died of either tuberculosis or infectious diseases from the poor sanitation in the village. (Branwell more or less drank himself to death). Nicholls stayed in Haworth for several years to care for his father-in-law. Nicholls eventually remarried. His widow finally discovered the paintings (housecleaning, no doubt) in 1914.

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Sadly, it seems that Branwell had erased himself from the family portrait. This fact was not known until the 1950s, when the oil paint became more transparent with age. Now, it is clear that there was once a man’s figure between the sisters.  Did Branwell already have such a low opinion of himself? Was he ashamed to be seen with his much-more-virtuous sisters? Or did he feel he could not do justice to his own wonderfulness? Or was this possibly a portrait of his father, who took a very dim view of Branwell’s nights spent in the local pub or worse?  We’ll never know.

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The London exhibit also contains items such as Charlotte’s tiny boots. The caption says that for outdoor wear, the boots were most likely worn with wooden platens strapped to the soles for a little protection against mud and snow. How did the Bronte girls manage to walk for miles in the rugged North Yorkshire moors in footgear like this?

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Last year I made a literary pilgrimage to Haworth in Yorkshire.  The town still looks much the same as it did when Emily composed her novel about wild forbidden love on the moors. I was lucky enough to stay at Ponden Hall, a house where the Brontes were regular visitors. It’s now a family home, a lovingly run bed and breakfast, and a venue for  gatherings of artists, writers, and Bronte fans. The charming hosts go out of their way to show all visitors around their historic home.  In the photo below, the bookcase is a hidden door into a secret library. The Bronte girls used to visit the house, a couple of miles from the parsonage, to use the library.

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It’s possible to actually sleep in the “box bed,” shown above, with the little window that reportedly inspired Emily to write her famous scene where the ghost of Cathy appears outside the window, begging to be let in.  Her forbidden and guilt-ridden lover Heathcliffe staggers out onto the moors in desperate search of her. (Did I sleep in the box bed? No, but maybe next time! Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe!)

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights," Public Domain

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights,” Public Domain

In 1939, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon played the lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe in the classic romantic film based on the novel.  Since then, there’s been a 2011 film version that makes explicit the racism that Emily only hinted at in her novel, by calling Heathcliffe a “gypsy.” It’s on my list to watch.  There’s a 2009 miniseries, too.

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Did I venture onto the wild moors myself?  Only partway.  I had a broken foot, thanks to a super-klutzy fall just before I left on my trip.

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But I’m determined to hike the moors.  Next time, I hope I’ll be able to follow the signposts and get just a little bit lost in the wild countryside that inspired Emily Bronte and her sisters.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, history and literature of Europe and the British Isles!

Ludwig at Linderhof

"King Ludwig II of Bavaria," Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria was found dead in Lake Starnberg on June 13, 1886. He was 40 years old. The cause of death is still mysterious, but his death was convenient for a lot of people in Bavaria, where he had pretty much given up on the day-to-day business of governing. Government of Bavaria ground to a halt while Ludwig spent all his money (mostly his own personal fortune) on increasingly theatrical castles and palaces. He had been declared insane the previous day and was in some kind of royal “protective” custody.

After a couple of misses, I was finally able to visit Linderhof Palace, King Ludwig II’s favorite home, at a time when the grotto was open.  I was anxious to see it, especially after watching Luchino Visconti’s very fine film Ludwig, about the life and mysterious death of the notorious Bavarian king.

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Ludwig built Linderhof as his own personal getaway.  In fact, it was the ultimate bachelor pad.  But he enjoyed the place in solitary splendor; he rarely if ever had visitors.  He built a special music room for his favorite composer, Richard Wagner, but Wagner never saw it. The grounds are breathtaking, and because the palace is quite small, each room looks out onto a beautiful manicured view with pristine mountains in the background.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

In Visconti’s 1972 film Ludwig, the king is played by Visconti’s real-life romantic partner and muse, Helmut Berger.

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The film shows Ludwig lounging around in his grand surroundings with hand-picked servants and a handsome young actor. Filming took place in the palace, so watching it is like having a tour personally conducted by the very strange and romantic Ludwig himself. His bedroom (intentionally) recalls the bedroom of King Louis XIV of France. This is a one-man palace; there are no guest rooms.  The help stayed in outbuildings, invisible to the king until they were needed.

It is hard to say how accurate the life story is.  But it is certain that Ludwig was an eccentric and  dreamy romantic.  His people loved him, but he was not much of a king when it was time to hang the ermine in the closet and get some work done.

One of Ludwig’s very few friends was his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi. She was famously married to the Emperor when she was only 15, and spent the rest of her life wanting out.  She is played by Romy Schneider (who also played Sisi in the very silly but entertaining semi-fictional series of Sissi movies).

The grotto was built up the hill behind the castle.  The entrance looks like a fort a very ambitious child might build.

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But the grotto itself is as jaw-droppingly weird and beautiful as it was in Ludwig’s day.  He had Wagner’s operas performed inside for his own personal pleasure.  The water was heated, so that he could swim in it if he tired of being rowed around in his gilded shell boat.  And the lighting could change colors depending on his mood, or the mood of the opera scene.

Ludwig's Grotto

Ludwig’s Grotto

The grotto is still festooned with the floral swags that Visconti’s movie crew put up.  The film has a fantastic scene where an Austrian actor is taken into the grotto to meet Ludwig, who wants him to recite dramatic speeches 24/7.  Helmut Berger, as Ludwig, floats out of the gloom in his shell boat, wearing a dark overcoat and a black Homburg–with an enormous diamond brooch pinned to the side. He fixes the actor with an imperious, piercing stare. The actor tries hard to be Ludwig’s New Best Friend, but the friendship ends badly and Ludwig is alone again.

Nearby Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles are justly famous, but they are overrun with tourists.  Armed with a Bavarian Castles Pass, I actually went to Linderhof twice during my last trip.  One day it was rainy, the next it was sunny.  I can’t say I had the place to myself, but there was time and space enough to ponder the mysterious life of Ludwig.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Back to Blenheim

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Every now and then the stars align favorably.  I was lucky enough to visit Blenheim Palace last fall, and doubly lucky to be in England again in the spring.  When I bought my Blenheim ticket last fall, I stopped at a kiosk and made it into a year-long pass–at no extra charge!  What a deal!  I’d probably go back even if I didn’t like the place, but I happen to love it.

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Blenheim was used for the exterior scenes of the great film Hamlet, with Kenneth Branagh as director and and playing the melancholy Hamlet himself. He was perfect. English major and Shakespeare lover that I am, I’ve watched the film quite a few times.  I like to turn on the subtitles so I can get all the glorious Shakespearean words, but it is very dramatic and easy to follow even without caring much about the dialogue. It even ends with some swashbuckling worthy of Jack Bauer in 24. The acting is stellar, featuring, besides Kenneth Branagh, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, the late Robin Williams, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Michael Maloney, Timothy Spall, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Geraard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, and Jack Lemmon (he was still with us in 1996!)

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Toward the end of the film, one scene shows the new King arriving after the tragic events of the story, riding up to the palace with his retinue.

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The palace, decorated with military mementos of the First Duke of Marlborough, was just the right location. The 11th Duke of Marlborough had a cameo appearance as one of the nobles accompanying the new king.  I’m guessing it was one of the highlights of his long and distinguished life. After all, he was appearing with fine actors in a great film that showcased his ancestral home. Plus the new King was played by Rufus Sewell, in fine smoldering form.  Who wouldn’t want to appear in that film?
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I  last saw the 11th Duke last fall on my visit.  He was usually a very visible presence, striding around his palace and really seeming to welcome visitors.  When I was there last, his brother was being married in the palace chapel. So the Duke was jovially greeting his guests.  He looked frail, though, and I was sad to learn that he died just a few weeks later. During my visit, I saw his lovely wife, and I also saw the soon-to-be 12th Duke with his wife. I recognized them all from photos in the house. The heir is in the photo just behind the 11th Duke.

I previously wrote about Blenheim at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/11/06/blenheim-the-s…kings-waterloo/

I wrote about the death and funeral of the elegant 11th Duke at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/30/what-are-plus-fours-anyway/ ‎ and  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/29/farewell-to-th…of-marlborough/

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The 12th Duke has now moved to the front of the photo displays in the palace. Yesterday I toured the several of the family’s private rooms in the East Wing.  The rooms are sumptuous, but lived-in.  (Think of the most elegant possible version of Shabby Chic).  There are 12 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and dressing room–but they are off limits. No photos were allowed. The 12th Duke was in the house–his flag was flying.  But he must not have been told that I had come to see him, because he was nowhere in sight.  As an American, I’m always puzzled but intrigued by British aristocracy and royalty.  I wish the 12th Duke many years of carrying on his family’s heritage, and I’m sure he’s as dedicated to the task as his late father was.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

What are Plus Fours Anyway?

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

The media coverage of the late 11th Duke of Marlborough’s death made much of the fact that his pallbearers were Palace gamekeepers, or maybe groundskeepers, dressed in “traditional plus fours.”  I looked at the photos and all I saw was short pants worn with knee-high socks that seemed to slightly clash with the pants.  It turns out “plus fours” have a very specific definition: pants that are carefully tailored exactly four inches below the knee.They’ve been worn by British sportsmen since about 1860. The Duke himself very likely wore them when out hunting on his lands.

During his visit to America in 1924, the raffish Edward, Prince of Wales, famously wore plus fours. (He later briefly became Kind Edward VIII, until he famously abdicated in order to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson). His short pants gave him a sort of free-wheeling look that fit right in with the Roaring Twenties.  After Edward made his way back home across the pond, his stylish short pants caught on, especially with golfers and with anyone else who wanted to flout convention.  (I can well imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald sporting a pair).

I generally expect pallbearers to be close friends or relatives of the deceased.  It seems that having one’s groundskeepers perform the task must be a privilege and mark of very high status. After all, how many of us even have extensive grounds, let alone uniformed groundskeepers to tend them?  There’s also the implication that the Duke’s relatives are above any sort of menial task.

I’m reminded of the custom that shocked Consuelo Vanderbilt when she arrived as a young American bride at Blenheim, freshly married to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. A carriage met the newlyweds’ train in Woodstock.  Approaching Blenheim, men from the estate unhitched the horses and pulled the carriage through the grand palace gates. Things like that didn’t happen where Consuelo came from.

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Anyway, the Duke’s employees seem a very happy lot.  When I was in Woodstock last month, all the palace employees I encountered seemed extremely cheerful–and that is not always the case with people who attend the high and mighty.  I think the late Duke was a hands-on sort of man, genuinely loved by many.

As an American, I don’t suppose I’ll ever fully understand the subtleties of the British class system.  I do appreciate certain little perks.  For example, the late Duke’s name was John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill.  But his title gave him the right to use a most elegant signature:  he simply signed his name “Marlborough.” Now that’s class.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2806349/Flag-half-mast-Blenheim-Palace-Mourners-line-route-funeral-cortege-11th-Duke-Marlborough-died-aged-88.html

Angel with a Shot Glass

Want an antidote to the recent overload of royal news?  I just saw a wonderful movie about a group of people about as far from the doings of the aristocracy as it’s possible to get in the British Isles.

Movie poster, from NYT review cited below

Movie poster, from NYT review cited below

The Angels’ Share, directed by Ken Loach, takes its title from the traditional name for the 2 percent of the volume of single malt whiskey that somehow gets absorbed or evaporates from every barrel distilled. The movie opens in a Glasgow courtroom, where asorted young petty criminals are being sentenced to community service for their misdeeds.  The most serious offender is a young man named Robbie.  For no good reason other than generalized rage, he has mercilessly beaten another young man to a pulp.  His victim has lost the sight in one eye.  And this is only the last in a long string of violent offenses.  By rights, he should be sent to prison.  But sitting in the courtroom is his girlfriend, about to have his baby at any moment.  The judge gives him a break:  he’s off to community service with the others.

The girlfriend is middle-class, smart and tough with Robbie.  He is strictly on probation with her, though she loves him.  Her family not only detests him, but chases him down and beats him up.  Her father tries to pay him off to disappear.  But the girlfriend sees something in Robbie, and he sees something in her and the newborn son.  He just needs a break.

How many caper movies have you seen where the hero just needs to pull off one more crime in order to escape from his past forever?  How many times have you seen it work? In this movie, miraculously and hilariously, it does work.  Robbie and his misfit friends are taken under the wing of the kindly but tough supervisor of their community service.  He happens to be a devotee of fine whiskies.  After sharing a congratulatory drink with Robbie on the birth of his new son, the supervisor invites him to a very posh whiskey-tasting event in Edinburgh.  His new friends Rhino, Albert and Mo invite themselves along, and we’re off.  It seems Robbie has an incredible nose for fine whiskey–totally unexpected in a young man who previously spent most of his life getting plastered on whatever was cheap.  He also has a fine analytical mind and a talent for leadership.

The version I saw had subtitles, and it needed them.  The Scottish low-life brogue used by the characters is fast-moving, profane, and howlingly funny.  The very dimmest bulb of the group comes up with the very best idea:  wearing kilts to pull off a daring heist.

The story is a bit of a fairy tale; the crime is pretty much victimless.  What is special is the look inside the lives of lower-class Scottish youth, contrasted with the lives of much more refined Scots, Brits, and one American with way too much money. Who knew that whiskey had such an intricate and proud history?  Who knew that single malt whiskey is a way of literally tasting history?

The movie won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  The stellar cast includes Paul Brannigan, a newcomer totally convincing as Robbie, plus Jasmin Riggins, Gary Maitland, William Ruane, John Henshaw, and Siobhan Reilly.

One of many positive reviews of the movie is in The New York TImes at http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/465769/The-Angels-Share/overview.  It’s by Stephen Holden.

There’s a movie trailer at The Angels‘ Share (2012) – Official Trailer [HD] – YouTube

I visited Edinburgh a couple of years ago and passed on the distillery tour.  Health nut that I am, I wasn’t interested.  Now I’m putting it on my list for the next time I go.

 

Jane Austen in Tel Aviv

I just saw a fine Israeli movie, Fill the Void, that could have been written by Jane Austen–if she’d spent some time in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. The director, Rama Burshtein, is an insider in this community–and she specifically said she had Jane Austen in mind when working on this movie.

"Fill the Void" poster, from Ebert review cited below

“Fill the Void” poster, from Ebert review cited below

The men wear prayer shawls, various Old-World-looking hats, and ringleted forelocks.  The women wear modest but attractive outfits, with a lot of fussy detail. The women clearly take great care with their appearance. Turbans cover their hair once they are married.  Only the single women are bareheaded. The sexes are informally separated during gatherings at homes or in the synagogue–the women sit in the next room, but everyone can see and speak with everyone else if they try.

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

As in an Austen novel, the purpose of a woman’s life is to marry.  Here, the point is not so much to marry a rich man–it seems that in this group, an adequate income is assumed.  (The rabbi distributes money on request during a holiday celebration. Is this communal money, or is it the private money of the rabbi? I couldn’t tell, but the rabbi’s wife clearly knows all about whatever finances are involved). The point here is to marry within the group, and to marry someone compatible. Compatibility is very hard to gauge, though, when there is no dating as we know it.

There is a very constrained code of behavior, as in an Austen novel. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice, when oafish Mr. Collins walks right up to Mr. Darcy and begins babbling about a mutual acquaintance, WITHOUT A FORMAL INTRODUCTION.  In the Israeli movie, single men and women are strictly shielded.  In the opening scene, a mother and daughter stalk a prospective bridegroom in a grocery store, just to get a glimpse of him from a distance. As in an Austen novel, the women never question their place in this social system.  They just accept it as their reality.  However, just as in Austen novel, the women have their ways of influencing the men who are nominally in charge.

It goes without saying that to everyone in this community, this way of life, though constrained, is precious. In the sorrowful history of the last century, countless communities like this one disappeared forever.

The plot is simple:  an 18-year-old girl is giddy with the prospect of marriage to the young man glimpsed in the grocery store.  But her family hesitates because a tragedy intervenes, and the young man’s family withdraws the offer.  The tragedy is that the girl’s pregnant sister dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving a tiny son and a grieving widower who, everyone agrees, must marry again.  There is an offer from a woman in another Hasidic community in Belgium.  The girl’s mother can’t bear to part with her first and only grandchild.  So she puts pressure on the widower, some years older, to marry her 18-year-old daughter.  She puts even stronger pressure on her daughter, even though her husband, the rabbi, does not think the match appropriate.

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The way the dilemma works out is fascinating and touching.  A senior rabbi, meeting with the couple, asks, “How does the girl feel about the match?”  The girl replies, “It is not about feelings.  It is the right thing to do.”  He smiles gently and says, “It is ONLY about feelings.”  I can see the appeal of this way of doing things.  The elders are wise and loving.  They have seen a lot of life, and they truly have the best interests of the young people at heart–mixed, of course, with their own very human needs.

The rituals depicted are ancient, mysterious (at least to me) and moving.  We see a mourning group sitting shiva, a Purim holiday celebration, Sabbath meals, formal community gatherings, a circumcision, a betrothal, and a wedding.

One big difference between this world and Jane Austen’s world is that here, there seems to be no dissembling or hiding of one’s true feelings.  The emotions of the community members are palpable, whether in joy or in sorrow.  In this insular community, I suppose no secrets can be kept for long.  And anyway honesty is clearly a core value. At times of high emotion, the people have a habit of rocking back and forth in their seats–so they really wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But as in an Austen novel, a person’s fate turns on a look, a gesture, a few quiet words spoken, a note quickly written and read just in time by the right person.  As in an Austen novel, a woman’s fate depends on her luck in marriage. I have not been to Tel Aviv, and if I go I will probably not see the inside of a Hasidic community.  Many cultures have contributed to the Europe we know today. I very much enjoyed this intimate and detailed look into a culture that somehow feels both alien and familiar.

The film has won numerous awards.  The ending is ambiguous; one hopes these characters have made choices that will make them happy.

The late Roger Ebert had a very sensitive review of the movie.  It is at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fill-the-void-2013. The Variety review, which mentions the Jane Austen connection, is at http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/fill-the-void-1117948164/.