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Oys and Girls

When you think about how some of the smartest, most surprising films about women have been made by men -- and vice versa -- you start to realize that directors should dare to speak for the other gender more often.

Few filmmakers know the ritual bonds and betrayals of men like blue-collar advocate John Sayles. He dipped into the mythology of genetic machismo with 1996's Lone Star, reminding us that the father eventually proves to be ghost to the man. But rewind to 1983, and you'll find Sayles on equally firm footing with Lianna, the story of a late-blooming lesbian.

Then there's Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who made her feature debut with 1991's Proof, a brutally funny, sometimes twisted but oddly tender look at the friendship between a blind photographer and the dimwitted stud who becomes his friend. The two men derive more (platonic) pleasure from each other than either does from the woman who wants them both. Moorhouse made male hetero affection a beautiful thing, something she never even approached in her wretched "women's pictures" How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and A Thousand Acres (1997).

Add writer-director Boaz Yakin to the list of filmmakers who barged into the opposite sex's clubhouse and returned with an unsentimental, resonant understanding -- in this case not of women, but rather of one woman. A Price Above Rubies is not Yakin's first uppity exploration of a place many would insist he had no right to enter. His debut feature, 1994's Fresh, followed a young black man (Sean Nelson) as he made extra money after school delivering drugs for the black and Puerto Rican dealers in his New York City neighborhood. When this young clocker -- who studied the game of chess under the tutelage of his errant daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) -- pitted one employer against another and had everyone either serving time or dead, the film shimmered with the power of fable. A young, almost Zen disciple defeats the infidels through wits and courage. Black filmmaker John Singleton might have supplied truer grit to this inner-city saga, but paleface Yakin had the artist's instinct for great themes illuminating unknown lands.

Likewise A Price Above Rubies -- which Yakin describes as an adult fable -- travels deep into the psychological, sexual, and spiritual crises engendered by a young Jewish woman's life within a community and a tradition that do not recognize who she really is. In truth Sonia (Renee Zellweger) doesn't know who she really is either, and the film ends gloriously, without providing her or us with an answer. The filmmaker spends the entirety of his languid, dialogue-rich movie snaking a thread of identity through Sonia's small, sweaty palms, then yanking it away just as she tightens her grasp. The quiet thrill of the rambling journey -- and of Zellweger's tough, appropriately tentative, and touching performance -- comes in watching Sonia's grip get stronger.

The film begins with what may be its most unnecessary element -- a flashback to the relationship between a preadolescent Sonia (Jackie Ryan) and her devoted brother Yossi (Shelton Dane). Yossi will reappear throughout the movie to witness the disintegration of Sonia's marriage to Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a sweet but emotionally confined yeshiva teacher; he also notes the insidious effects that her husband's religious patriarchy and his intransigent family -- ruled by Mendel's steely sister Rachel (Julianna Margulies) -- have on Sonia. Another witness is an unnamed, apparently homeless woman (Kathleen Chalfant), who utters enough witty dialogue that we needn't fuss too much over her portentous presence.

While Sonia's guardian angels don't add a lot to the overall story, they lend support to the frightened, feverish anarchy of a woman who dares challenge thousands of years of Jewish orthodoxy to keep a job she enjoys. From the very instant she gives birth and moves with her husband to the middle of Brooklyn's Hasidic community, it's clear Sonia is not mother material. Nor is she much of an Orthodox Jew. She begins suffering from mysterious fevers that she complains to a patient but dogmatic rabbi are the result of a fire that's burning inside her, something she believes is caused by the fact that "I don't know where my body ends and my soul begins." Part of this flame could be explained as simple friskiness: Her devout husband is a dutiful, clinical lover who prays before and after sex and recoils when she plants passionate kisses on his chest during the act.

Along comes Mendel's brother Sender (Christopher Eccleston) to add a few drops of gasoline to the fire. A bottom-line kind of guy who recounts the day he realized his conscience was no longer useful to him (Eccleston's droll, bored speech here is priceless), Sender disrupts Sonia's life by offering her a job as a buyer for his jewelry shop and an outlet for her passion. He indirectly catapults her into a scandal involving a Puerto Rican jeweler (Allen Payne) that sends her over the Hasidic walls and into an alligator-infested moat.

A Price Above Rubies is the flip side of another film about a Jewish woman, a shop, and a man. Jan Kadar's The Shop on Main Street (1964) depicts a female button-shop owner who gives up her livelihood yet finds a firm male shoulder to lean on during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Sonia, on the other hand, gains confidence through her employment in a jewelry shop but loses the support of most of the men in her life -- including husband, lover, and religious advisers. And although a similar story could have been told in the context of almost any patriarchal religion, the aura of Jewish challenges, explorations, and philosophical embraces of ambiguity lends the fabulous elements a gravity they wouldn't otherwise have. Although Sonia winds up questioning and, in the eyes of her in-laws, blaspheming God, she has clearly (as Yakin points out) gained strength from the same philosophy she's rejecting. She's acquiring exactly the kind of wisdom about contradictory human nature -- i.e., sometimes people want to free you and imprison you at the same time -- that might be found in some perplexing proposition from a Talmudic scholar.

Zellweger's New York Jewishness fades in and out, but the simple honesty of her Sonia's conviction does not. Good as she was in The Whole Wide World and Jerry Maguire, both were essentially reactive roles she rescued by adding emotional range to her soft-spoken girlishness. A Price Above Rubies sends her on an arduous journey that requires a wide and sometimes conflicting variety of feelings. Zellweger, along with the superb Eccleston as her lover and the haunted-eyed Fitzgerald as her husband, expresses them all in just the right places.

A Price Above Rubies may strike some viewers as far-fetched. We're used to movies about ethnic urban neighborhoods having a grainy, shaky-camera documentary look, and Yakin bravely goes for an eerier, more elevated feel. Bravest of all was his decision to treat the lead character as a person first and a woman second. It grounds the movie in a measured intelligence that makes its profound themes authentic. This is one "adult fable" whose lessons you'll be processing long after the credits roll.

A Price Above Rubies.
Written and directed by Boaz Yakin. Starring Renee Zellweger, Glenn Fitzgerald, Christopher Eccleston, and Julianna Margulies.

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Jimmy Fowler

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