Film Scouts Reviews

"A Price Above Rubies"

by Karen Jaehne

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"A Price Above Rubies" is a phrase from the Song of Solomon, which sets a woman's worth to her husband. In Boaz Yakin's feminist film about a young Jewish wife's personal revolution and liberation from a Hassidic family engaged in the jewelry business, the ruby is missing from a beautiful gold setting that the young woman discovers among some junk. By the end of the film, a ruby will be found and set, and young Sonia will be liberated and using her expertise with gems to launch a Puerto Rican man's career and their mutual independence.

The arc of the film is evident from the introduction of Sonia, who is uppity about the Torah, and her first meeting with Ramon, when she one-ups Ramon's boss in a confrontation over the value of an emerald. Although the film's feminist pattern is predictable, the story is not loaded down with cliches, primarily because we've never seen a film so thoroughly honest - or, at least, to us goyim, it feels honest - about life inside this community.

Sonia's husband Mendel is a sensitive scholar, enormously popular in the community, but a thoroughly humanized character, endowed with intelligence, an earnest desire for respect as a husband and father, and several flaws inherent to his position. We are not in Yentl territory here; nor does Boaz Yakin present him as the oppressor. As the malevolent man, Yakin gives us Mendel's brother Sander, a tradesman who pegs himself in the beginning at a family dinner by solving one of Mendel's philosophical riddles about thievery by saying the smart man doesn't inquire into things he oughta stay out of. In short, Sander is a business bully, and when he decides to put Sonia to work for him, he exploits not only the knowledge of gems she learned from her father but her pent-up sexuality, as well.

Sonia goes to a rabbi in an attempt to figure out what is wrong with her, describing to him "a fire inside of me, getting hotter than makes my stomach's too hot! Every touch burns me,...I have no soul!" This confession rouses the rabbi and, in a sub-plot of the film, his dalliance with his own wife costs him his life; at the funeral, the widow whispers something to Sonia. We won't know what it is until one of the scenes toward the end, as Yakin laboriously tries to wrap up the many morals of his story.

What Sander does to Sonia is the crux. He gives her a job which we see her doing with enormous accomplishment and pleasure, for which Sander takes his pound of flesh. As he himself says, he has given her everything she wants: liberation from the tedium of housework, an exciting job in the secular world, but of course this has a price. "It's the quality of our sins that set us apart," says this diabolical serpentine force.

From a literary perspective, it follows the archetype of The Expulsion from Paradise. That the Hassidic Community sees itself as Eden is made clear in several scenes emphasizing the protective walls around the women and children, the quality of life they enjoy, and how enjoyable it is for most people. Sonia is just not one of them. And it's love it or leave it, as portrayed by writer/director Yakin.

In the end, Sonia's departure costs her everything. Still, Yakin rescues Mendel from the husband's customary role as bad guy in these scenarios. In doing so, Yakin creates a barely credible situation in which Mendel goes to see his estranged wife (although he has always been reluctant to leave his Torah studies for her); presents her with a ruby (although his cruelly forgetting her birthday was consistent with his deliberate disregard of tokens of love); tells her she will always have access to her son (although his sister clearly won't let the woman near); and says he's sorry their marriage was such a bad fit (better luck next time?). More than anything, this scene reveals a masculine hand behind our feminist fable. Mendel receives such special treatment on the part of the writer/director as to be the only Jewish male in history or literature (pace Jesus) to offer such a model of Christian charity and forgiveness.

I've heard that "A Price Above Rubies" has incited great controversy in the Jewish community. That does not surprise me, because it tends to happen in any community that cuts itself off from the mainstream to protect its religious convictions. Yet, Boaz Yakin's portrait does not condemn Jewish culture or life. It shows its limitations and, as noted above in the case of the heroine's husband, goes to almost incredible extremes to grant the characters a positive spin.

The sex scenes are not steamy, but they're blunt. Sonia's husband warns her against sexual pleasure; his brother takes her, first up against the wall, then on the table and, even after she has been ousted from her family, offers to put her up in an apartment he keeps in the city on condition that she stup him. This reflection of sexual mores within the community generally makes for protest, if it's the first of its kind. (Compare, for example, the phlegmatic reaction of Connecticut WASPs over "The Ice Storm.")

Apart from the Hassidic community, where are the feminists with a stake in the way this film depicts women in need of liberation? Nobody speaks up because it's made by a man. Recalling Joan Micklin Silver's "Hester Street" and "Crossing Delancey," I feel comforted knowing that men can play too.

To be sure, "The Price of Rubies" has a sense of accuracy in the way activities and living rooms and relationships are depicted. It feels well-informed and concerned about the particulars, so one trusts the production designer to tell us things we haven't known before - for example, how a jewelry shop in a basement sells superior quality inventory to a select clientele.

One of the most annoying things to me was the poetic license necessary to introduce two weird, not-to-be-taken-at-face-value characters. One is an old beggar woman with the cheek bones of a fashion model; the other is a young boy from the fable that forms the prologue of the film. These two show up at odd moments to advance the plot but are never really introduced or placed in time and space. They feel contrived, because the boy represents a conservative view of what is permissable, and the old woman is a seer without a crystal ball. They are never explained beyond their symbolic value.

Ultimately, the film depends upon symbolism to justify itself - its title, certain characters, and even its message. In a scene that brings the young couple before the rabbi for marriage counseling, Sonia says such outrageous things that Mendel challenges her: "Don't you fear God?" Sonia's answer speaks for womankind, "If I'm so offensive in his eyes, let him do what he wants with me." Which seems to me to sacrifice this particular character's genuine reaction for a statement that blames the fate of woman on a wrathful deity to offended to be reasonable.

"The Price Above Rubies" needed to choose the path of reason and defend Sonia against Jaweh and his accolytes in rational terms. It seems to me to be fearful of a God whom its heroine is intent on defying.

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