A Price Above Rubies
directed by Boaz Yakin
(Miramax, 1998)

From the opening shot of A Price Above Rubies you know you're in for something different.

The camera circles a gold ring, detailing each of the carved figures which make up its interesting lattice work. Then voices appear, and you're in the room of young Sonia and her brother, Yossi (Shelton Dane), a 10-year-old asthma sufferer who's determined to go swimming in the nearby lake even if it kills him. That scene will come back to haunt you, just as the ghost of Yossi comes back to Sonia (Renee Zellweger) more than a decade later and make her married life even more difficult than it already is.

Sonia's husband, Mendel Horowitz (Glenn Fitzgerald), is a good man, a promising Hasidic scholar and teacher. But Sonia's not happy. There's something about sharing her love life with Abraham and Isaac, not to mention a host of lesser prophets, that doesn't sit well with her. Moreover, she finds it hard to mold herself to a community in which people's roles, especially women's, are carved in stone.

A Price Above Rubies is one of those films that has to come from personal experience because they simply can't come from anywhere else: This isn't Star Wars. There's no galaxy long ago and far away to imagine as a stage, or rubbery creatures to project as characters.

Just how this personal experience came into the life of writer-director Boaz Yakin is one of the many questions that A Price Above Rubies leaves unanswered. Yakin previously wrote and directed 1994's Fresh, a very different tale of escape from an insular community in a large city.

But here Yakin must deal with mystical questions and age-old traditions; even the structure runs roughly parallel to a story, narrated by Yossi in the opening scene, of a woman condemned to wander the earth because she's too wicked for heaven, too fondly remembered for hell.

What emerges from all this is a mixed bag. Zellweger makes for a sympathetic heroine, while Julianna Margulies provides a world-class shrew as her sister-in-law, Rachel, a woman who fits into the community so well as to be the community.

More interesting and balanced performances are offered by Kim Hunter as the Rebbitzn, wife of the Rebbe and the only person in the community who can fully appreciate Sonia's desire for something beyond what she's offered, and Kathleen Chalfant as a mysterious beggarwoman who seems to appear from nowhere and serves as a constant reminder of the punishment awaiting those who can't seem to find their place.

Less successful is Allen Payne as Ramon, a Hispanic artist and craftsman Sonia discovers while working as a buyer for Mendel's brother, Sender. Both Payne and Ramon are often simply too good to be believed, and any film that asks us to believe in a philosophical beggar woman and the ghost of a 10-year-old has to be believable on every other score.

Still, there's something compelling about the story of a woman coming to grips with her role in a very conservative community, and something wonderful about a movie that isn't afraid to ask disconcerting questions about God, about people and about the difficult relationship between the two.

"Sometimes I look at men and wonder how could God have created so ugly a creature for women to cling to," Sonia wonders out loud in one particularly unpleasant scene. Ultimately neither Sonia nor Yakin can answer that question. But we have to thank both of them heartily for asking it.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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