Give Igal Hecht credit for trying. Making a movie about theology is tricky enough; making one about a fringe theology requires a miracle. In his ambitious but frustrating documentary, the Canadian filmmaker has taken on that perpetual urban curiosity, Jews for Jesus. By the choice of subject, one expects a flurry of proselytizing and street-side rhetoric. But instead of easy conflict and comedy, Hecht sets out to show the movement and its people, spending (and sometimes misspending) a lot of energy zipping to Hungary, Israel and Canada, seeking out those for and against.
Messianic Jews see themselves, we learn, as a persecuted minority of truth tellers. They reject the Oral Law on which much of modern Judaism is based, and embrace what they say is Judaism’s true spirit: Jesus as the messiah prophesied by the Old Testament. As shown here, their Judaism is peculiarly inoffensive, full of a hippie, Carlebachian spirit that, the occasional comment about damnation aside, doesn’t feel very subversive. Of course, critics call it all a ruse. Messianists, they say, are little more than Christian missionaries who use Jewish cultural trappings to deceive converts. These counter-missionaries embark on campaigns with a zeal equal (perhaps, in some cases, even greater) to the messianists themselves.
The issue of minority rights is a compelling one. Yet it’s strangely lacking in depth here. For all the fiery sound bites (a believer says she, regrettably, thinks her nonbeliever father will burn in hell), the film never throbs with philosophical urgency. It’s a shame, because messianic Jews hold the most curious of religious attitudes. They embrace the central tenet of one religion but strenuously argue for acceptance in another. Yet beyond the basic rhetoric of the born again, no real sense emerges of why they choose to occupy such a strange place.
The gentle suggestion runs through the film that crisis — government repression, car accident, divorce — lies at the root of many conversions. But even here, “The Chosen People” doesn’t dig deep enough to achieve a quieter, more personal film. Most of the converts hold up better as symbols than as story. In fact, the most interesting people are the counter-missionaries, whose heavy artillery against such a fringe group comes off as at once righteous and misguided. In one scene, a crowd heckles a messianist while a counter-missionary shouts him down in a moment that will have you rooting or cringing, depending on your bent.
Unfortunately, such instances of complex passion are rare. Too often the film tiptoes down the line between fetishism and condemnation. Hecht has dared to walk into an insular world; one just wishes he was more hell bent on showing its ideas than its posturing.