Ezer Kenegdo a film, written, directed by and starring Daniel Kremer and Deniz Demirer opens with a quote from the Talmud Balvi.
“If a man is worthy, his Ezer Kenegdo will be of help to him. If a man is not worthy, his Ezer Kenegdo will be a help against him.”
Ezer Kenegdo, I learn, translates from Hebrew to a helpmate or rescuer and a force of resistance in the same breath. The title itself is a contradiction and it is the conflict of these contradictions that become the main thrust of the film.
We first meet Izzy Jonigkeyt (Kremer), a Hasidic Jew, at his Torah reading alongside his friend Levi (Josh Safdie). Hasidic Jews are expected to serve their religion not just out of an obligation to but with joy as well and although Izzy reads his passages, studies his scriptures and chants his chants, he doesn’t want to be there, not really. It’s his obligation that takes him, not enjoyment and his lack of enthusiasm are noted by his more orthodox friends. He also has an arranged marriage taking place in two weeks time, to a girl he’s known for all of 2 months and that’s something else he’s not too joyful about either.
Izzy is uncomfortable in the world he is supposed to inhabit and the life he is obligated to lead. A Jewish man out of place, slightly off-kilter with what his religion asks of him, a man of contradictions. He is at the stage in his life where he is at odds with everything, his beliefs, his friends his thoughts, his future, his heroes. Yet throughout the film he remains thoroughly optimistic about the path he is on and we join him on this grown-up coming of age journey.
Before his life changes forever Izzy decides to embark on a road trip to San Francisco to visit his Polish-born Catholic friend, Marek Wisniewski (Demirer) and to track down and interview an artistic recluse by the name of Harry Kierk (Rob Nilsson).
Daniel Kremer has often spoken about his admiration for the films of Woody Allen and this influence certainly comes across in the script which has many witty exchanges between characters and plenty of philosophies and pontificating about love, life, religion and everything in between.
Particularly with Marek and Izzy, as they debate the contradictory aspects of Catholicism, and Judaism and argue if an icon like Kierk, is contradicting his own artistic integrity, by letting his entire life’s work go up in flames. We understand the metaphor from the beginning as a means of resetting your life and starting again. So we immediately understand Izzy’s motivation and needs to get to the answers he wants as he will soon be restarting his own life and he’s desperate to know if it’s all going to be worth it.
Kremer manages to channel Woody Allen in his quick, paranoid delivery. However where he just manages to outshine his hero is in the way Izzy comes across as so lovable, that you just want to give him a great big hug and hope he succeeds in his life, long after the film has ended.
Meanwhile, Rob Nilsson is a standout and deserves credit in his role as the cranky charismatic anti-establishment icon. Whenever he is on screen he just commands attention and you can’t take your eyes off him, it was disappointing that we never got to see more of him and his character,
Much of the success of Ezer Kenegdo comes from the performances of the cast. They all play their roles with such naturalism that at times it feels like we are watching a documentary.
Of course, this style does have its drawbacks. Our ears are often bombarded by overlapping dialogue, where the viewer has to work hard to try and catch more than one conversation. As well as actors who, in search of pure naturalism, end up speaking far too quietly for the microphone to pick them up.
Some scenes that were dialogue heavy could have benefited from snappier editing as they meander a little and the lack of cuts, understandably due to the nearly 5-year delay in releasing the film, meant we were left with a lot of similar looking shots that got quite repetitive. However, Cinematographers Gustavo Ochoa and Jeff Kao conveyed a realistic docudrama style that helped me feel like I was eavesdropping on someone’s conversation.
Overall I felt Ezer Kenegdo was a fine film in which I was privy to characters and conversations I recognised but in an environment totally alien to me.
With some more technical nous Ezer Kenegdo could have been a very interesting experience, however, it’s the terrific cast and their lovely performances that help this film get an extra star and I hope that’s not too contradictory.