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Freedom's Facet

[whitespace] A Price Above Rubies
Abbot Genser

Flight Risk: Renée Zellweger plays a woman yearning to explore the world beyond the bounds of family and tradition in 'A Price Above Rubies.'

A young woman dreams of escape

By Michelle Goldberg

IN HIS NEW FILM, A Price Above Rubies, director Boaz Yakin has chosen a subject a world away from that of his remarkable first feature, Fresh, which was about a boy growing up in a crack-infested New York City ghetto. A Price Above Rubies tells the story of Sonia Horowitz (Renée Zellweger), a passionate, sensual Jewish woman suffocating in her Hassidic community. Strange, then, that the plots of the two films feel so similar. Both are about people struggling against the oppressively narrow worlds into which they were born, and in each, the protagonists has one exceptional talent that illuminates his or her escape.

In Fresh, that talent is chess. For Sonia, it's gems. The daughter of a jeweler, Sonia has an astonishingly good eye, but her parents discourage her from going into the trade, instead wanting her to marry a scholar and live a good Jewish life. When the film begins, she has just moved to Borough Park, Brooklyn, with her husband, Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a dreamy Yeshiva teacher who thinks of nothing but the Talmud, and their baby boy. Early in the film, we see Sonia and Mendel making love--he refuses to leave the light on and mounts her with no more foreplay than a kiss on the forehead. When Sonia starts writhing under him, he jumps off her, saying she's indecent. "I'm supposed to think exalted thoughts," he tells her, to which she replies, "I'm supposed to enjoy myself knowing you're up there thinking about Abraham and Isaac and the rebbe?"

Sonia's dissatisfaction nearly leads to a nervous breakdown, and Zellweger makes her frustration, confusion and desperate loneliness visceral despite the film's spare dialogue. When she's breast-feeding, her face is twisted with irritation and suffering, and in one powerful scene she runs out of a room and hides under a blanket to get away from her baby's crying. It's to Zellweger's credit that though motherhood makes Sonia miserable, she never seems like a bad mother nor does she lose the audience's sympathy. Also impressive is the way Yakin refuses to villainize Mendel. His piety is sincere and his intentions obviously good, but he simply can't understand it when Sonia says, "This life is good, but it's not beautiful."

If there's a villain, it's Mendel's older brother, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), but Sender is also the one who offers Sonia a respite from her dreary housewife life. Recognizing her eye for jewelry, he hires her as a buyer for the high-end, off-the-books store that he runs in a Brooklyn basement. When she's working with jewels, Sonia's flushed hysteria gives way to serene confidence, and her buying expeditions to Manhattan enlarge her world enough that she starts to imagine another life. She rebels in increments--there's a delightful scene of her relishing a pork egg roll--and eventually has an affair with an ostentatiously Catholic Puerto Rican artist named Ramon (Allen Payne). Their relationship is rather difficult to believe, but Yakin renders it with a sweet, light touch.

Like Fresh, A Price Above Rubies is full of intense, understated melodrama. Occasionally, though, Yakin slips into a mood of magic realism that doesn't fit with the rest of the film: a bag lady follows Sonia around and becomes a kind of guardian angel; and in a truly ridiculous scene, Sonia marches down the street followed by a posse of determined Hassids all going to confront Sender. Other times, though, Yakin's whimsy works perfectly. There is, for instance, a wonderful scene in which an old rabbi rediscovers his love for his wife. He's so overwhelmed that he dies, but the wife is grateful that her husband finally turned his thoughts away from God long enough to tell her he loved her. The combination of the ironic, the tragic and the bittersweet is distinctly Jewish, and it's where Yakin is at his best.

A Price Above Rubies (R; 102 min.), directed and written by Boaz Yakin, photographed by Adam Holender and starring Renée Zellweger and Christopher Eccleston.

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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