During quarantine, I watched the recent Netflix series Unorthodox and the movie The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch. They are examples of a recent trend in romantic comedies—see also Shtisel, Menashe, and The Women’s Balcony—set in Ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic communities. Both Unorthodox and The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch present the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community as an exotic, picturesque, and quasi-primitive society, out of touch with modern values and modern culture.
Since the beginning of cinema, classic rom-coms have followed a set pattern of plot development: A female and a male with seemingly incompatible views or personalities are introduced; some situation throws them together and sparks fly; and then a number of problems, whether external or psychological, threaten to keep the characters apart. Eventually, the two resolve their issues and unite, and the viewer is happy with the resolution. In classic movies like An Affair to Remember, When Harry Met Sally, and Pretty Woman, successful rom-com writers and directors used this basic structure, creatively modifying each step to keep it fresh.
Unorthodox and The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch do away with the usual rom-com structure in favor of a conclusion proclaiming “existential freedom,” or what Sartre proudly termed “Nothingness.” The romantic journeys of the past, with their happy endings, have been supplanted by journeys that lead to loveless, passionless experiences—and end with ambiguity or emptiness.
It is obvious why Unorthodox and The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch use Ultra-Orthodox societies for the setting of their postmodern message, and why they portray only the weaknesses of this society—never attempting to show its strengths. As seen through the eyes of Esty, the heroine of Unorthodox, and Motti, the hero of Awakening, religious society is confining, small-minded, anti-liberal, anti-cosmopolitan, and particularistic. Esty is a young girl raised in a cloistered Hasidic community. Her rebellion begins when she reads secular books; she eventually runs away. Motti is similarly “awakened” from his family’s expectations regarding a suitable wife and future lifestyle. These stories attack the Ultra-Orthodox community through ridicule and parody of the parents, rabbis, and adherents, all of whom are turned into a source of laughter. They possess little wisdom, and even less virtue, which gives the writer and director license to extricate the hero or heroine from this outdated prison and bring him and her to the delights of postmodern virtues and morals.
What are the idealized postmodern virtues and morals of these films, and who is the new Moses who leads the hero or heroine into the promised land? After the audience sees how controlling these religious societies are, and how they narrow the expectations of the adherents and surround them with rules, laws, and authority figures, the hero or heroine meets a representative of the outside modern world, whose life appears to be enlightened and superior. This angel of opportunity leads our protagonist out of the community and toward the promise of personal fulfillment. In this outside world, the main character undergoes a detoxing process that involves sexual activity as an expression of his or her new “freedom.” This new structure thus inverts the structure of older rom-coms (When Harry met Sally, Moonstruck, Philadelphia Story, Sleepless in Seattle), in which romanticism and sensuality depend on the characters’ restraint, self-discipline, or social situation to hold their passions in check (sometimes with great difficulty), leading to the romantic climax at the dramatic ending.
In Unorthodox and Awakening, the hero and heroine find themselves in bed with strangers during their first outing into this brave new world. In yesterday’s romantic comedies, withholding sex provided the mainspring, the tension, and the energy for the story. The plot, therefore, had to be clever, present novel problems and solutions, and hold the audience’s attention for ninety minutes: How will the writer move the characters toward the finale? Today, however, there is little need for cleverness; the audience knows that halfway through the film, the two will be in bed together. Even though Unorthodox is ostensibly about a woman seeking fulfillment in a musical career, the clear message is that sexual liberation is the entryway to the new world.
Instead of solving the characters’ relationship difficulties, these story arcs finish with a “burst of freedom.” At the end of both Unorthodox and Awakening, the protagonists are alone, adrift in a postmodern society in which there is no need for flirtation, romance, coyness, or even clever conversation. These stories conclude with a surrender to the onrushing cultural tide; the new rom-coms suggest that resistance is useless and counterproductive.
As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, America has been infected with German and European postwar philosophy, which celebrates cynicism. Nietzsche and later postwar European philosophers believed “the Will” to be the highest human virtue, and radical personal freedom the highest goal. This required attacking every institution that inhibited an individual’s ability to act out his or her desires. Since there is no “Truth” in postmodern thought, all religious teachings are only myths for maintaining control. All rules and laws are constraints on personal freedom. Government is just an attempt to subjugate the powerless. The end is always “Nothingness.”
Toward the end of Motti’s awakening, he visits a dying friend and fortuneteller, who helps him reframe his recent rejection of family, friends, and religion: “Everything is now possible,” he explains. There are no limits. In Habits of the Heart, author Robert Bellah notes that “Progress, modernity’s master idea, seems less compelling when it appears that it may be progress into the abyss.” At the end of the movie, Motti sits on a park bench alone, having given up everything that had meaning in his life. He does not realize that a future without limits may mean descent into the abyss.
Roy Pinchot writes from Netanya, Israel.
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