THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
In the past I've looked at documentaries like The Brandon Teena Story where good intentions and powerful subject matter were overwhelmed by shoddy filmmaking and inarticulate participants. Trembling Before G-D is the epitome of this dilemma: Attempting to investigate the state of homosexuality among the most orthodox of Jewish communities, the film is shallow and uninteresting, thanks in part to the closed-off nature of the subjects.
The notion that there are members of communities like Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews who are gay is almost shocking. In one sense you just know there must be. But on the other hand, it seems impossible: The structure of the society is so rigid and fundamental and being gay flies in the face of the religious indoctrination so central to their identity. The sense of community and tradition is the most important element, and this is achieved largely by separating members from the rest of society (a point made amply clear in the earlier film A Life Apart: Hasidism in America). Even in the midst of New York City Orthodox Jews exist in their own world.
So that must make being gay even more difficult. Unfortunately, the film does little to relate the inner turmoil of the participants. They groan about how hard it is to relate but they're unable to really express themselves. They're so inexpressive that they come off more as mildly inconvenienced than emotionally torn. They allow their upbringing to instill a deep sense of self-hatred but then they also shut down and don't let it out.
Even the other side of the equation can't work up much of a furor. Unlike extremist evangelical Christians, anti-gay Orthodox Jews take a more "what do you want from me?" approach, quietly (and boringly) suggesting that gay members take drugs to suppress their libidos and go to counseling. Undoubtedly once the cameras turn off it's a different story but the bloodless attitude of the opposition here seems dispassionate and non-threatening. The whole film barely works up any anger or determination. It's telling that one of the only tense moments comes from a brief and uncharacteristic interview with a ravingly homophobic Hasid near the beginning. He's a jerk, but where's a voice as driven as his for the rest of the film?
There are a few compelling moments, like a prayer group specifically praying to lose their gay urges and a gay man who attempts to rekindle contact with his elderly father in a frustrating phone call. But these don't necessarily lead anywhere as the filmmakers flit from one subject to another without any build. A pair of lesbians are shown practically berating a married, closeted friend on the phone in such an annoying and insulting way that it's impossible to feel any sympathy for them. Similarly, a lesbian recalls visiting a gay rights rally and disagreeing with the speakers' criticisms of organized religion. Her lack of self-analysis is what's holding her down.
If any one subject is shown to be at all interesting it's Mark, a young Brit who was kicked out of numerous yeshivas (Jewish schools) and is now HIV positive. He longs to combine both sides of his life (he's shown cruising clubs and then revisiting his former yeshiva) but is also aware of how impossible it is. There is no fluidity to Orthodox Judaism. The inherent separateness of it forbids any identity questions.
Ultimately the solution for these people needs to be to simply leave their community. But it's not as simple as changing synagogues. Their entire identity is wrapped up in their religion and untangling it is near impossible. Unfortunately the film itself doesn't create the same complexity.
The shot-on-video anamorphic imagery is problematic. All motion takes on a jagged, distorted look that resembles a field order problem. It's not impossible that my player was having trouble converting the anamorphic image for my standard television, but in the course of thousands of DVDs I've never seen this problem. It made the feature difficult to watch and had I not been preparing to review the disc I would have just stopped watching.
(NOTE: I've checked the disc on a second player and noticed the effect was lessened greatly, so add a couple stars to the video portion of this review, with the caveat that it might look bad on your system.)
The Dolby Digital surround audio is fine. Voices are clear and understandable. The film has the necessary but annoying feature of subtitling sentences that contain Yiddish and Hebrew words, so subs pop up constantly, but not consistently. Additional subtitle tracks are available in Spanish, Hebrew, and Yiddish.
A two-disc set, Trembling Before G-D actually has a pretty impressive list of extras. The second disc features interviews with director Sandi Simcha Dubowski as well as the editor. Additional footage from interviews in the film are included as is a featurette on the reception the film received from audiences (ranging from total disgust to emotional outpourings.) The director's short video Tomboychik, which features him interviewing his grandmother and playing with various family wigs, is included as well. A trailer and some additional resources round out the set. This is a pretty serious list of extras (the menus take two screens) and they do help add some perspective to the film but it still didn't help me care more about the subjects.
Trembling Before G-D is disappointing. The subject matter sounds interesting but the film can't muster the passion to make it work. To make matters worse, the video transfer here seems to be completely screwed up. If I'm wrong and I saw a bad disc I'll retract this statement, but the video flaws make this release one to avoid.