The Favorite and Shtisel – two reviews
These reviews may contain spoilers!
Set in the early 1700’s during the reign of Queen Anne, this costume and interior-rich film dissects the absurdities of the English class system, and governance under royalty. The film depicts Anne in constant pain and can no longer see to read, and either these factors or just intellectual dullness fostered by years of having every whim catered to are no barrier to her being the ultimate authority. When she does rule it is at best mere whim or the results of manipulations by conniving courtiers. It is amazing the country survived this, but then again, all of Europe was in the grip of monarchs who were largely if not entirely just as deeply mired in absurdity.
Things are rolling along well enough with Mrs. Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, being the Queens adviser, lover and the de facto ruler. Mrs Churchill is at least honest with Anne from time to time, genuinely cares about the future of the kingdom, educated in matters of policy and war, and tough as nails in dealing with Parliament. Then along comes Abigail.
When we meet her Abigail had been thrust out of her aristocratic world by the crazed acts of her father. The debauched aristocracy is something to which Abigail would like to return, given the alternative: being left to life in the mud as illustrated in the opening scene where she fell out of a carriage after being pinched in the bottom by a fellow carriage occupant who spends his times masturbating for all to see. She tells us she fears a life where she would have to service syphilitic soldiers. A cousin to Mrs. Churchill, she manages to become employed as a servant, as unwelcome by that class as she is by the other. Her life as a servant is a cut above walking the streets but still not pleasant, given the floor scrubbing, six to a bed and ice-cold communal baths.
English society gave the aristocratic few all there was to enjoy and the masses the crumbs, leading to the likes of Marx, Dickens and the liberal democracies of later centuries. There is still just a small middle class so the only alternative for Abigail is to find a way, any way at all, back into the aristocracy and all its corruption. Mrs. Churchill sees Abigail as a threat as Abigail finds a way to come to the attention of Ann, becoming an obstacle to her aspirations.
Abigail, no caring about anything but her own survival, employs her considerable intellect in improving her lot. Abigail is not interested in governing, not that she was in any way prepared had she been. She can only evaluate events as a threat to her own well-being, or not. Meanwhile Mrs Churchill moves to cut off Abigail’s threat to her control of the queen and thus the country. Both Abigail and Mrs. Churchill are trapped by a system where it became inevitable that one of them must go.
Seen in the light of the threats and challenges facing the realm, these rivalries, plots and revenges are absurdities impeding rational governance, absurdities reflected throughout the film, where odd musical riffs and slapstick humiliations combine with rabbit worship, chocolate binges, drunkenness, open fucking, and the director’s thorough mocking of the hyper courteous minuets of the period.
Historically some important aspects of the movie do not check out. For example, there were no rabbits representing her 17 dead children, Anne was not known to be lesbian, and did at least appear capable of governing.
Excellent movie. Garybob says check it out.
Shtisel is an Israeli production that follows an Ultra Orthodox family in Mea Shearim, the most orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. Shukem Shtisel and his youngest mid-twenties son Akiva live together following his wife’s early death. The story revolves around his commitment to the religion, Akivas’s less enthusiastic focus upon it and the painterly interests that distract Akiva from constant study at Yeshiva.
The series provides constant reminders of the godly devotion that animates this sect. Each morsel of food is accompanied by praise of the deity and each passing of a door jamb involves touching a fabric put there for the purpose. Men’s black hats perch perilously atop their heads, presiding over ringlets descending along their sideburns in what must involve some sort of daily curling ritual.
There are endless manipulations as Shulem tries to get Akiva to give up painting and get married to someone arranged for by a matchmaker. The father objects to and interferes with his son’s true calling, which is just not good enough for a religious Jew. He should teach at the religious school where the father teaches and later serves as principal. The person he should marry is someone who would keep him in line. Of course Akiva wants to marry someone else, but her brothers in prohibit it against her wishes. That relationship is doomed. The men rule.
In the meantime a gallery owner hires Akiva to make paintings to which the gallery owner signs his name. Akiva quits teaching and is kicked out of the house, staying with friends and acquaintances before being invited to return provided he resumes teaching. Then along comes Elisheva, Akiva’s first cousin. Shulem eventually sees that Akiva is genuinely fond of her, and intervenes with her father, Shulem’s brother. The brother eventually assents, pursuant to Elisheva’s wish to marry Akiva, on the condition that Akiva give up painting and take on the brother’s new business venture. Akiva is so in love that he assents. Parents rule in these arrangements, or at least carry a big stick, so compromises and traps of this sort are unavoidable. Akiva craps out of the deal after giving it a college try, and the marriage is called off.
Along with this story is that of Akiva’s sister Giti, whose husband goes to Argentina and sheds the religion, abandoning the family in the process. He was long ill-suited to the religious life but went along to get along. She tells no one to avoid the humiliation, finds work here and there until she takes over a money changing business. The husband returns and she welcomes his him back but with a deep anger continues to punish him for his infidelity to her and the religion. She wants a ‘normal’ ultra Orthodox life, a total fitting in to all the norms, rules and traditions. Anything else is a loss of face.
The stress of the loss of her father and his livelihood does not go over well with their daughter Ruchami, who finds a way out of the house by marrying another 16-year-old boy estranged from his family and living in the Yeshiva, his nose buried in the Torah day and night. Giti aims to destroy the marriage, lying to the boy telling him that Ruchami wants a divorce, and telling Ruchami that the boy wants a divorce. In a rare but welcome moment, Giti realizes the boy is a good kid. But still it’s the parents and the religion that rules, for it is under Jewish law that these 16-year-old couple could marry themselves by a simple vow before several hastily arranged witnesses, and which ordains powerful parental controls.
Shukem starts looking for a wife and eventually finds a prospect in the matchmaker’s widow. She has him fire the long serving school secretary as having a woman so close does not look right for someone as religious as he. This match creates problem after problem so Shukem calls it off
Akiva returns to painting, getting recognition and support from a wealthy art patron, before backing out of the deal just weeks into his year-long award of room, board, studio and salary and opportunities to show his work in order to marry Elisheva. After bailing on the agreement to work for his future father in law, he walks back into the studio and an opening, at which his father makes a public pitch for the school, totally embarrassing his son. Religion for the father trumps art every time, and at least in principle, everything else as well.
Another series worth watching. Garybob says check it out!