'Thy Father's Chair': IDFA Review

Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
A clear-eyed chronicle of domestic disrepair.

Alex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi's U.S.-Italian documentary premiered in competition at the Dutch festival.

Cleanliness neighbors godliness in Alex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi's Thy Father's Chair, a standout among the many world premieres this year at Amsterdam's gigantic nonfiction showcase IDFA. A claustrophobic, cautionary peek into the cluttered chaos of an ordinary-looking Brooklyn apartment occupied by identical-twin Orthodox Jewish brothers, it has obvious festival appeal and could justify art-house distribution in NYC and farther afield.

Australia-born and U.S.-based Tibaldi was responsible for several fictional features in the 1990s before shifting his emphasis to documentary. He's since struck up a creative collaboration with his Catalan co-director/writer/editor Lora, some 18 years his junior: the pair's 10-minute Godka Crka (aka A Hole in the Sky), about a young Somali girl, competed at Sundance in 2013.

Tibaldi is credited as sole cinematographer here, however, and the limpid clarity of his hand-held digital images providing an ironic contrast with the grubby squalor onscreen. Sixtysomething duo Avraham and Shraga (the pair are hard to tell apart, with their bushy gray beards) have, since the death of their parents some years before, inadvertently subscribed to the ethos of domestic duty famously espoused by Quentin Crisp: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years, the dirt doesn't get any worse.”

But while famous bohemians like Crisp and his fellow Manhattan-dweller Taylor Mead (whose Lower East Side hovel "starred" in 2005's fine documentary Excavating Taylor Mead) can play the eccentricity card, the situation with Avraham and Shraga evidently arises from serious matters: mental illness, alcoholism, isolation and social atomization.

Complications revolving around an upstairs tenant — never seen here — eventually compel the brothers to take drastic action, calling in the services of the private company Home Clean Home (HCH) to sort out more than a decade of what's charitably dubbed "a neglected situation."

"The Torah wants everything to be clean, but unfortunately we veered from it," concedes Avraham at one stage, relieved that HCH has sent a team of cleaners led by a Jewish man, Hanan. The interplay between the brothers and the professional, sympathetic, good-humored cleaners is a consistently droll element that occasionally escalates into friction as the siblings' helpfulness shades into impatience, petulance, bewilderment and occasional obstructiveness.

A sterling advertisement for HCH, Thy Father's Chair is also distant kin to suchsmall-screen shows as Clean House and How Clean Is Your House? but with greater anthropological-psychological depth, palpable empathy and high-toned cinematic craft. Dedicated to the late Chantal Akerman — who likewise was often concerned with intense inspections of domestic spaces — and neatly divided into seven discrete chapters plus prologue and epilogue, it's a necessarily repetitive but engrossing and ultimately optimistic glimpse into a troubled situation entering belated turnaround.     

Concentrating squarely on the apartment's interiors but occasionally venturing outside for a welcome breath or two of fresh air, Tibaldi and Lora commendably eschew non-diegetic music until the closing credits. Instead, they craft a subtly immersive soundscape that makes particularly strong use of low-key susurrations — their source revealed as a grumbling, noisy boiler in the horror-movie-style cellar.

At the IDFA screenings, all of the English-language dialogue was accompanied by subtitles — useful when specific Jewish terminology is discussed, but otherwise superfluous and distracting, not least because of the way such onscreen words contaminate the visuals' immaculate purity.

Production companies: GraffitiDoc, No Permits Produktions
Directors-screenwriters-editors: Alex Lora, Antonio Tibaldi
Producers: Enrica Capra, Antonio Tibaldi
Cinematographer: Antonio Tibaldi
Composers: Bjarke Kolerus, Simon Don Eriksen
Sales: CAT&Docs, Paris
Not rated, 74 minutes 

 

Director
Antonio Tibaldi
Alex Lora
Production
Enrica Capra for GraffitiDoc
Antonio Tibaldi for No Permits Produktions
Cinematography
Antonio Tibaldi
Editing
Alex Lora
Antonio Tibaldi - See more at: https://www.idfa.nl/industry/tags/project.aspx?id=6A21DAED-6DE1-4ED6-BA4F-FE7D125C0DE8&tab=-#sthash.cMW3FNvH.dpuf
Director
Antonio Tibaldi
Alex Lora
Production
Enrica Capra for GraffitiDoc
Antonio Tibaldi for No Permits Produktions
Cinematography
Antonio Tibaldi
Editing
Alex Lora
Antonio Tibaldi - See more at: https://www.idfa.nl/industry/tags/project.aspx?id=6A21DAED-6DE1-4ED6-BA4F-FE7D125C0DE8&tab=-#sthash.cMW3FNvH.dpuf
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