Film-Forward Review: ARRANGED

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Left to right, Zoe Lister-Jones as Rochel
Francis Benhamou as Nasira
Photo: Film Movement

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ARRANGED
Produced & Directed by Diane Crespo & Stefan C. Schaefer.
Written by Schaefer, story by Schaefer & Yuta Silverman.
Director of Photography, Dan Hersey
Edited by: Erin Greenwall
Music by: Sohrab Habibion & Michael Hampton
Released by Film Movement
USA. 89 min. Not Rated
With Zoe Lister-Jones, Francis Benhamou, John Rothman, Mimi Lieber, Laith Nakli, Doris Belack & Alysia Reiner.

Brooklynites are proud that observant Muslims and Hassidic Jews can peacefully mingle on the street, and one of Arrangedís focal points is what can happen when those parallel lines intersect in mini-United Nations Ė public schools.

Rochel Meshenberg (a sweet Zoe Lister-Jones), 22, begins a new job helping a blind Puerto Rican boy mainstream into a fourth grade class, just as she, a long-skirted, Orthodox Jewish woman, has to establish herself as a special education teacher. Translating daily lessons into Braille brings her into close contact with another teacher, Nasira Khaldi (a feisty Francis Benhamou), a head scarf-wearing, observant Muslim. Though they are no shrinking violets, the women are objects of curiosity and misperceptions, especially from a condescending and antagonistic principal, who campaigns to liberate the two young women even as she mouths politically correct diversity lessons for the students.

The screenplay was suggested by Yuta Silvermanís experiences living in the Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood and working as a special education teacher where she became friends with the Muslim mother of one of her students. For Rochel and Nasira, both living at home with their parents, their school work provides a cover for their growing friendship. They particularly share their frustrations about the parallel matchmaking efforts by their parents. Rochel and Nasira are willing to participate in a process they feel can be more meaningful than random dating, but each struggles to make her preference heard, even as they insist to principal Jacoby that their lifestyle is their choice.

Rochelís family features New York actors almost unrecognizable from their recurring roles in the various Law & Orders. Admirably, they do not overplay the Yiddish inflections even as they create an almost suffocating family following rigid rules of dress, behavior, and interaction between the sexes. All of Rochelís marriage prospects are screened by relatives and the shadchan, the matchmaker, but her amusing arranged dating disasters are familiar from many films.

In the contrasts between the two families and their rituals, the Meshenbergs are more insular than the Khaldis. Rochelís mother is terrified that her daughter being seen with her Muslim friend will hurt her marriage prospects within their nosy, suspicious community, but Nasiraís siblings are casually contemporary in their slang. Though Nasiraís father wants to follow the most traditional matchmaking arrangement with an older family friend, he concedes that he canít battle both his wife and daughter to get his way.

While thereís the inevitable scene of Rochel storming out of her house to visit the usual apostate cousin who has fled the shtetl environment for a Manhattan filled with sex, drugs, and rock Ďní roll, the culture clash is only a minimal crisis. The rare indie fare that has a positive take on young Jewish women with warm family connections (the more secular Brooklynites in Debra Kirschnerís The Tollbooth or Karin Albouís more didactic Paris-set La Petite Jťrusalem) usually favors a sexier outside romance. Instead, Silverman was encouraged by the success of the Israeli film Ushpizin, which sympathetically portrayed an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem couple, to find a charming, distinctively Brooklyn solution that respects heritage and faith.

With a little modern help from cell phone photography and e-mail, the proud women of Arranged delightfully combine loyalty to tradition with a contemporary friendship based on more shared values than differences. Nora Lee Mandel
December 14, 2007

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