A major part of the Jewish liturgical year is the ten day span between Rosh Hashanah, the "head of the year" (new year), and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During that time, individuals are asked to meditate on their behavior and make amends to those they have wronged, so that the almighty will inscribe them for another year in the Book of Life. That image of the Book of Life kept popping up, perhaps anachronistically, as I watched House of Life, an interesting if disjointed look at the overflowing old Jewish cemetery of Prague. The main cemetery that is featured in this piece is so overcrowded that people have been buried for centuries in various strata, so that even the literally thousands of gravestones in the cramped quarters that are still above ground are only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Seeing the decaying, leaning grave markers filling up the tiny space reminded me of pages of an ancient book, and perhaps appropriately so. Each gravestone is the final testament to a life, and unfortunately time has wiped away a lot of the information we once might have gleaned about these people.
Clocking in at well under an hour, House of Life is simply too broadly focused to ever impart a meaningful through-line or in fact to ever reveal what its creators' motives for producing it were to begin with. Don't get me wrong--the documentary is full of interesting factoids, everything from film clips of The Golem to anecdotes of long ago rabbis, to Holocaust tragedies (the cemetery was the only playground available for children in those years), and on and on. But, like the scattered headstones found in the cemetery, it's too chaotic to ever amount to much. Part natural history, part biography, and part cultural analysis, House of Life spreads its focus too broadly to ever achieve a cohesive feel.
The documentary does sport a lovely narration by Claire Bloom, as well as some passingly informative interview segments with historians and restoration experts (one of the neater little segments shows how they repair damaged headstones). Filmmaker Allan Miller, an Academy Award winner for the superb From Mao to Mozart, capitalizes on his musical background and makes sure the film has a wealth of beautiful source music to underscore the images. Some of the choral music is especially lovely, with the dense massed voices that seem particularly endemic to eastern Europe.
My sense is this piece would have been more affecting had it either been longer or, barring that, had concentrated on just one or two items it discusses in its 50 or so minutes in its current form. I personally ended up feeling like one of the tourists the film shows being hurried through the site as a tourguide briefly mentions passing items that no one really ever has a chance to reflect on or react to. That sort of If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium ethos doesn't work well for a subject this weighty, though at the very least it will provide an introduction to several important subjects revolving around Jewish history in the former Czechoslovakia which may help start some viewers on their own fact finding missions.