Lust, Faith and Phylacteries
‘Mendy: A Question of Faith” is cinematic proof that putting faith and sex in a movie doesn’t make the film about religion, and doesn’t necessarily make it sexy.
In this cheesily staged feature, which is showing through May 26 at Cinema Village in Manhattan, the titular character (Ivan Sandomire) is a Satmar Hasid who has developed some potent doubts about his upbringing. He takes to Manhattan to see a friend who left the fold years ago, a scruffy low-level drug peddler called Yankie (Spencer Chandler). Over a superfluous subplot of Mendy as a drug mule, the sullen but surprisingly thoughtful boy makes tentative contact with the opposite sex even as he stays in tenuous contact with his family.
Director Adam Vardy wrings some nuance out of the main character, who’s not as ready to leave the faith as you might expect. Mendy feels the yearning in his loins, but his heart hasn’t quite kept up. “It’s all emptiness,” he proclaims to Yankie of his newfound secularism.
You can’t blame him. Yankie’s is a drifter’s world, and Mendy’s desperation to escape the regimen of Hasidic life sends him into a world of equally despaired aimlessness. (It’s one of the film’s few nuances that it refuses to congratulate itself on an easy secularism.) Of course it takes a woman, a Brazilian dancer named Bianca (Gabriela Dias), to open Mendy’s eyes and give him true salvation.
For all its heavy-handedness, the film goes easy on the exposition: Mendy has some ambiguous scandal in his recent past that the movie doesn’t belabor, and a broken home that provides gentle psychological explanation. The most watchable thing here, though, actually can’t be seen at all — it’s the dialogue, which characters deliver in an intoxicating mix of immigrant English and Hungarian-inflected Yiddish. In one clever scene, characters fire good-natured ethnic insults in two languages around a Sabbath table (“Self-righteous Litvak!” “Messianic Lubavitcher!”).
But patois cannot supply enough of the authenticity the film so desperately needs. It doesn’t help that many small details seem off. Mendy is a Satmar from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and yet his train station is the “Q” stop at New Utrecht, halfway across Brooklyn in Boro Park. The film also portrays a tawdry, strip-club Manhattan that feels seriously dated.
In this C-movie of lust, faith and phylacteries in odd places — literally, when Yankie adorns a half-naked woman in them as part of some kind of erotic ritual — characters debate the pull of convention. One just wishes the director followed a few more conventions of his own.
Steven Zeitchik is a staff writer at Variety.