For this engrossing mini-series made in 2018 and now streamable on the UK Jewish Film platform (a Netflix for Jews) the Israeli creators of Shtisel imagine a two-state solution to a conflict between two peoples.
No, not those two peoples. This six-part thriller is set in an alternative present-day Israel after a civil war between its Orthodox and secular populations.
Here, the religious have austere Jerusalem ruled by an ayatollah-like rabbi and truncheon-wielding beards, while the secular have Tel Aviv as their capital.
The fragile peace is threatened when it emerges that a bungling nurse led to an Orthodox baby (the ruling rabbi’s granddaughter) being raised by secular parents.
Our flawed-hero is Brodie (Assi Cohen) a Chasid who plies a trade transporting the bodies of those who died in the secular sector but who want to be buried in Jerusalem.
“Are people still dying,” asks an Orthodox guard at the checkpoint. “Praise be…” says Brodie before being waved through, his cargo providing cover for smuggled porn and pork.
This Israel isn’t pretty. But Brodie is as easy to like as he is difficult to admire. Married with children, his calm charisma is a comfort to Anna (Daniella Kertesz) the grieving former girlfriend of his latest job.
Anna plays jazz saxophone which is one of Brodie’s cultural guilty pleasures. He woos her with a haimishe hummed version of Charlie Parker’s Loverman. Who could resist?
Ori Elon and Yehinatan Indursky’s tense, fast-moving script is laced with Yiddishe humour. Yet it falters with key decisions made by its characters.
Take Brodie’s dangerous plan to kidnap the disputed child, an act that is well motivated, intricately explained and makes perfect psychological sense. Yet Anna’s decision to help him is as thinly drawn as her life and only exists, it seems, to drive the plot.
It feels extra lazy to have an underwritten central female character in a show that in part seeks to blow the lid on the injustices of a peyot-patriarchy.
What saves the series from this imbalance is the supporting role of the deeply wronged daughter of the rabbi, the biological mother of the disputed child.
Played by Tali Sharon with poise and power, it is she who defies her father’s tyranny and, more than the show’s hero ever could, embodies all that is fair and just in this riven Israel.
Watch the first episode free here