“He won’t hurt us, right?” the husband of the conjuring woman wants to know, asking about the monstrous entity his wife has summoned with mud and blood and a parchment of secret letters.
“Of course not! He’s here to PROTECT us!”
You know better. I know better. You don’t have to know Jewish folklore or have a grasp of Kabbalah to know “The Golem” may have been brought to life to protect and avenge, but that he — It — won’t limit his vengeance to murderous, Pogrom practicing Gentiles in 17th century Lithuania.
This English language Israeli production makes its moral lesson in the plainest terms. An oppressed people — raped, murdered and exploited for being apart, different and mysterious to the superstitious Russian Orthodox locals– learns the true price of vengeance in this parable.
For the horror fan, there’s grisly violence but little in the line of suspense, terror or performances that embody anything like that.
It begins with a narrated lie — “In Jewish folklore, it’s impossible to separate the truth from myth.” Nah.
A prologue traces the first Golem to ancient Prague, where a rabbi summons a mud monster of Hulk/Thing/Batman’s bad guy Bane proportions to protect his people, who are being murdered for all the usual hate-mongering reasons.
This Golem “must only be used for protection, for the greater good of all.”
It never works out that way.
Centuries later, a small shtetl in Lithuania enjoys relative tranquility, isolated from the Gentile world, its men spending their days in prayer and Torah study, the women raising babies and doing more than their fair share of work.
For Hannah ( Hani Furstenberg of “The Loneliest Planet”), that isn’t enough. She isn’t willing to go full “Yentl,” but she wants the education the men are getting. She slips under the floor of the rabbi’s school and listens, gets her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan of “The Island”) to sneak a Torah out for her to pore over at nights.
They are childless, so anything he can do to keep her happy and willing to perform her wifely duties (complete with post-coital incantations) is fair game. The rabbi might be lecturing Benjamin that “seven years” without a baby is long enough, but Benjamin is devoted. He knows Hannah’s pain, even if he doesn’t know about her trips to the village “healer” for birth control.
A chance encounter lets the villagers know that plague has broken out among the Gentiles. And you know Gentiles and their ability to find somebody to blame.
When Vladimir (Alex Titenko), cruel on a good day but driven mad by his daughter’s infection, shows up to demand the mystic Jews “cure” his little girl, the unarmed villagers have no choice but to pray and make their best effort.
“Fail, and I will burn this place to the ground.”
But his minions don’t wait for a prognosis. They single out villagers for raping and pillaging, starting with Hannah’s sister. Unlike the passive men, she won’t let this go unavenged. She uses her biblical knowledge to perform the ceremony that summons the avenger from Hell, who might be either a heartless monster or a “savior to us all.”
The pitter-patter and clumsy thumps she hears in the attic tip her that she’s succeeded. But it’s not until she’s dangling from a rope for being caught outside the village confines by the Gentiles that she has her proof.
A naked, skinny mud-covered boy with coal-black eyes dismembers her attackers. She almost thinks it’s her long-dead little boy. But we know it’s “Danny doesn’t live here, Mrs. Hannah.”
It takes a while for the rest of the village to figure out what she’s done, and as she sees the mayhem The Golem unleashes, Hannah has her moment of doubt. The rabbi urges her to get that parchment with the 72 unspoken letters that spell “The Hidden Name of God” that she placed in the child’s mouth and thus kill it.
“It will never die like the rest of us.”
Hannah considers drowning him, but cannot. And to the horror of her neighbors, the avenger has a lot of avenging to do and isn’t picky about who he stabs, whose heart he pulls out of their chest and whose head he makes explode.
“The Golem” is a nicely-detailed period production that reaches a fine climax, where all Hannah and the Hebrews’ and their tormentors’ chickens come home to roost.
It’s a far-from-awful folk tale with a horrific edge. But it’s not suspenseful, and the generally unaffecting performances by the Israeli cast fail to draw us in and create empathy for the endangered.
Hannah is a figure who demands more of a character arc, something more wrenching or embittered or broken or vengeful than what Furstenberg gives us.
The Golem himself? Creepy as only a dead-eyed little boy can be. But scary? Not really. Any number of American B and C horror movies have given us bone-chilling tweenage villains.
But as I said, the parable comes through loud and clear. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. An eye for an eye only makes everybody blind in the end, especially when the eyes look like puddles of crude oil, and just as pitiless.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex
Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Alex Titenko,
Credits: Doron Paz, Yoav Paz, script by Ariel Cohen. An Epic release
Running time: 1:35