Film-Forward Review: [MENDY: A QUESTION OF FAITH]

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Mendy (Ivan Sandomire) at the airport
Photo: Andes Film

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Directed & Produced by: Adam Vardy.
Written by: Hershey Schnitzler, & Adam Vardy.
Director of Photography: Gary Griffin.
Edited by: Heather Spilkin.
Music by: Jeremiah Lockwood.
Released by: LifeSize Entertainment.
Language: English & Yiddish with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA. 93 min. Not Rated.
With: Ivan Sandomire, Gabriela Dias & Spencer Chandler.
DVD Features: Commentary. Interview with cowriter Heshey Schnitzler. Two music videos by the Sway Machine.

After leaving Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, Mendel (or “Mendy,” played by real-life ex-Hasid Ivan Sandomire) treks to Manhattan. The only person he knows there is his tattooed cousin Yankel (a hilarious Spencer Chandler), a former Hasid who acts as Mendy’s tour guide to New York nightlife. Having no money, Mendy sleeps on the couch at his cousin’s, where he first encounters Yankel’s Brazilian roommate, Bianca (Gabriela Dias), in her underwear. The secular temptations they represent (Yankel – drugs, Bianca – sex) are often keenly and wittily illustrated.

But the emphasis on individual parts of the story, instead of the whole, highlights certain omissions. Suddenly, for example, Mendy travels to Israel smuggling ecstasy for a friend of Yankel’s. Conservatively dressed, the otherwise-unemployed Mendy is unlikely to be apprehended. Strangely, there are no scenes of him in Israel, even though he will mention a falling-out he has with his brother who lives there.

Indeed, the narrative disunity frequently makes for awkward transitions, including a masturbation scene following a tender moment with Bianca. No sooner is Mendy in Manhattan than he is tripping on ecstasy (and fully recovering the following morning), and it takes little convincing for him to become a drug runner. The actors are not helped by their characters’ one-dimensionality, which stand out in contrast to the genuine moments between Bianca and Mendy. Overall, the script doesn’t significantly develop its ideas – the dichotomies between soulfulness and soullessness, as well as the clarity of devoutness and the ambiguity of a secular life. Though featuring pungent dialogue (exemplified by Yankel’s rant about “cursed Zionists”), Mendy outlines its themes, rather than explores them. Reymond Levy
May 12, 2006

DVD Extras: The commentary by writer/director Adam Vardy and costar Spencer Chandler (Yankel) answers a lot of questions. Vardy intended Mendy to be about extremes, due to his experiences growing up in Israel, where there are no gradations between the secular and the Orthodox, in contrast to the pluralism of the U.S. Jewish community. His inspirations were a Village Voice article about outcast Hasidic teens and a case of real drug smugglers who used yeshiva boys as mules. (An earlier title was Mendela the Drug Seller).

Scattered through the mutual compliments are useful insights into the casting and background of the actors, as well as the difficulties of making a low-budget indie. That is a real Brazilian strip joint in Queens and a Lower East Side mikveh (ritual bath). As to why the woman Mendy connects with is from Brazil? Just that Vardy is a Brazil-phile.

The interview with cowriter Heshey Schnitzler, who translated the Yiddish dialog and fine-tuned the Yiddishkeit references, is an hour-long, mostly rambling conversation with Vardy. Schnitzler provides some vague background on Hasidic beliefs and society, including the significance of particular actions, such as the irrevocability of the cutting of Mendy’s peyos (long side curls). Although he explains his own feelings about leaving a Hasidic community, Schnitzler denies any autobiographical elements in the script.

Composer Jeremiah Lockwood was inspired by recordings of his grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg, a renowned cantor. With electric guitar and horns, Lockwood and his klez-rock band, the Sway Machinery, reinterpret liturgical pieces in the disc’s two live performances, reflecting the burgeoning Jewish alternative fusion scene, sharing band mates from Balkan Beat Box and Antibalas. Nora Lee Mandel
March 13, 2007



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