This charming documentary takes us on a quixotic quest to Hungary in search of a sentimental family divan (sofa), and throws us into an interestingly specific, yet somehow universal, tale of a young girl who has strayed from her Hasidic Jewish Brooklyn roots.
Pearl is getting old. By the standards of the Hasidic community she was raised in, at 27 she’s growing dangerously close to terminal spinsterhood. And even though she’s left the enclave of her youth to seek her fate in the wider world, she’s still a child of the faith, lapsed but not quite an apostate. She maintains strong ties to her orthodox father, who wants to see her married.
To appease him, Pearl decides to travel to Hungary and bring back a legendary divan — renowned for having been slept on by a famous rabbi in the 18th century. It’s a symbolic gesture, a way to bid for her father’s approval without giving in to the marriage thing. As if securing a family heirloom is the same thing as settling down and raising a family.
Divan is Pearl’s documentary record of her quest. It’s also enlightening for those not familiar with the Hasidic lifestyle. Not that the documentary doesn’t have a universal aspect — the insularity of the Hasidic Jews is only an extreme version of the bonding that’s an integral part of much socialization. And the ambiguous rebellion against one’s parents and religion is something a lot of people will be able to identify with. Anyone who has had a religious upbringing they feel they’ve largely outgrown has insight into that unsettling combination of anxiety and exhilaration that accompanies giving up one’s childhood certainties.
Pearl fills us in on her background — living in Brooklyn, she was 4 years old before she began speaking English, she loved the rituals of her youth and, for a while, dreamed of becoming a good Hasidic wife and mother. But the outside world crept into her life after her parents were divorced and she left the community with her mother. One of her early epiphanies was seeing Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.
She also fills us in on the story of the famous divan and takes us to Hungary with her on her journey.
Along the way the film is filled with interesting people, including friends of hers who have strayed from the path as well. In Hungary, she meets Holocaust survivors who still carry soul shrapnel beneath their kindly exteriors.
This may be just a well-crafted home movie, but it’s also a good-natured philosophical inquiry with some very potent emotional moments.
In English, Yiddish and Hungarian with subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Aug.30, at 7:30 p.m.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].