'The Golem': Film Review

More serious-minded than it looks.
2/1/2019

A Lithuanian woman creates a golem to defend her village in Doron and Yoav Paz's take on ancient Jewish lore.

A take on Jewish folklore in which a woman gets to be the misguided conjurer for once, Doron and Yoav Paz's The Golem is not the schlocky horror film its American marketing materials suggest. The English-language Israeli production may not wow stateside genre fans, but its approach to the source material (a close cousin to the Frankenstein tale) is emotionally and intellectually sincere, enacted seriously, if not always engrossingly, by cast and crew.

Hani Furstenberg plays Hanna, a 17th-century Lithuanian Jew whose small village is just far enough away from others to have escaped a nearby plague. Gentiles in the area blame the Jews for their suffering, and one day Vladimir (Alex Tritenko) storms into town menacingly, his near-death daughter in his arms. You've cursed my people, he tells the villagers, and if you don't cure my daughter you'll all pay.

Hanna, whose only son died seven years ago, has spent years eavesdropping on meetings of elder rabbis and secretly studying kabbalah. Seeing a way to protect her village, she sneaks into the synagogue at night, combs through its texts, and gathers what she needs to fashion a golem out of dirt in the woods. But rather than the bulky, hulking monster of lore, the magical creature takes the form of a boy — just the age her Josef was when he died.

Hanna's barrenness has been a point of friction with husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan), and now she forms a strong bond with the thing she has made. It feels pain when she is hurt — including the emotional pain she endures when Benjamin seems ready to leave her. Though she brought it into the world to fend off those threatening the town, the golem seems ready to settle other scores as well, some of which actually exacerbate conflict with neighboring towns. An aging local healer, when she learns what is going on, insists that Hanna must end the thing's life as soon as the immediate danger is over: When the healer was a child, she says, a golem destroyed not only her town's enemies but also "the ones we loved."

Though action scenes in which the child-size monster attacks sometimes suffer from jarring gore — instead of just smashing or stabbing enemies, he sometimes makes their heads explode telekinetically — the Paz brothers keep the violence from triggering snickers by continuing to focus on the creepy psychological bond between the faux mother and son. Having been ostracized for seven years for failing to give her husband a second child, this self-taught woman has now birthed something she may not be able to say goodbye to. While some feminist possibilities go unexplored in Ariel Cohen's script, the deadly potential of a mother's sublimated grief is front and center.

Production company: Dread
Distributor: Epic Pictures Group
Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Adi Kvetner, Lenny Ravich, Alex Tritenko, Konstantin Anikienko
Directors: Doron Paz, Yoav Paz
Screenwriter: Ariel Cohen
Producer: Shalom Eisenbach
Executive producers: Shaked Berenson, Patrick Ewald
Director of photography: Rotem Yaron
Production designer: Sasha Drobot
Costume designer: Lavrinenko Tatiana
Editors: Einat Glaser-Zarhin, Itamar Goldwasser
Composer: Tal Yardeni

94 minutes