Film Reviews


By • Nov 11th, 2005 •

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Fox Searchlight and Regency Enterprises present a Bona Fide production
104 minutes / PG-13

QUOTE: Sullen nine-year-old experiences God through spelling. The other story is of a marriage in crisis. Neither one makes any sense.

Rabbinical scholar Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) is obsessed with a form of Jewish mysticism he cannot fathom. He and his highly educated wife Mariam (Juliette Binoche) are the parents of sullen nine-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross) and teenager Aaron (Max Minghella). Saul is happily devoted to his family. He loves to cook big family dinners and play chamber music duets with Aaron. Biologist Mariam seems troubled even though she is maintaining a marriage, family, and career. In fact, we soon find out she is nuts. Saul, even though they have been married for nearly twenty years, doesn’t have a clue. He lets Mariam wander aimlessly around the San Francisco Bay Area without proper explanation.

Eliza is nearly a mute. She doesn’t tell her parents – and Mariam is in a fog anyhow – that she is a very good speller and has won a local competition without practicing. When the newspapers write about Eliza and she is set to compete nationally, Saul takes a sudden intense interest in coaching his daughter (while still neglecting his straying wife and rudely dumping duets with Aaron). He wants to spend all his free time with Eliza doing spelling exercises. Saul sees a weird relationship between spelling and connecting with God.

If only Mystical Union with God was this easy.

(See German mystic Blessed Henry Suso for another, more radical, approach. “Suso’s life as a mystic began in his eighteenth year, when giving up his careless habits of the five preceding years, he made himself “the Servant of the Eternal Wisdom”, which he identified with the Divine essence and, in a concrete form, with the personal Eternal Wisdom made man. Henceforth a burning love for the Eternal Wisdom dominated his thoughts and controlled his actions. He had frequent visions and ecstasies, practiced severe austerities and bore with rare patience corporal afflictions, bitter persecutions and grievous calumnies.”)

Saul begins to tutor Eliza in the Kabbalah. Poor Mariam is shunted aside by both Eliza and Saul. I understand, from a Florida student of Kabbalah I met in Israel, that it is not necessary to understand Kabbalah. You are told just to look at the symbols while touching each with a finger. Aaron is hurt not to be the center of his father’s attention and, in a devious slap to his father’s mystical passion (Saul did his PH.D. treatise on a Hebrew mystic), goes in another religious direction, a Hare Krishna sect. It helps that he was introduced to the sect by gorgeous, blond virginChali (Kate Bosworth).

Kabbalah’s mysticism is dramatized in BEE SEASON. When does this ever work in a film? Eliza becomes a mystic while Mom’s breakdown doesn’t interfere with Saul’s weird pursuit of a spelling bee championship for his daughter. Are spelling bees beauty pageants for the intelligentsia? And how does little Eliza put her parents’ broken marriage back together? Not only is it a letdown, it doesn’t make any sense.

One of Gere’s best performances was as the villain in INTERNAL AFFAIRS. He doesn’t like to play ‘bad.’ Saul is so good and kind-hearted that there isn’t a trace that he is the damaging core of the family’s psychological deterioration.

The screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (whose work here is based on the novel by Myla Goldberg) does give Gere a moment of true honesty when Saul flips out and goes looking for Aaron. Outside of this flash of reality, the blurry ‘shattered glass’ metaphors made me cringe. The Naumann’s are spoiled and indulgent and, truth be told, spelling bees are torture for everyone but parents.

Saul: Richard Gere
Mariam: Juliette Binoche
Eliza: Flora Cross
Aaron: Max Minghella
Chali: Kate Bosworth

Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Writer: Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal
Based on the novel by: Myla Goldberg
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Executive producers: Arnon Milchan, Peggy Rajski, Mark Romanek
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Costumes: Mary Malin
Music: Peter Nashel
Editor: Lauren Zuckerman

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