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No Country for Old He-Men

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Lior, the subject of Ilana Trachtman’s haunting, bittersweet documentary Praying With Lior, is a 13-year-old boy with Down syndrome and a fervent love of davening—the evocative Yiddish word for praying. In his prayers he is so bright-eyed, so joyful, that some congregants consider him a spiritual genius; his mother, Devorah, the rabbi of a Reconstructionist synagogue, says she rushes home from chemotherapy to daven with him. She hopes she’ll be there for his bar mitzvah, but this is footage from the nineties; she died in 1997. Seven years later, his rabbi father, Mordechai, works to prepare Lior for the coming-of-age ceremony—and for what he fears will be a life of disappointment.

Mordechai plays the role of party pooper: It falls to him to warn people against projecting things onto his son, who is, he says, no rebbe. But is Mordechai, hyperconscious of his son’s failings, going too far in the other, skeptical direction? I ask that with no disrespect: Mordechai emerges as a thoughtful and loving father, and he’s probably right. The mystery at the heart of Praying With Lior is just how much this beatific young boy understands. Has he fully digested the meaning of his way of life, or is he parroting his father and devoted older brother? On the other hand, doesn’t all prayer come down to parroting—to endless repetition that leads to a sense of transcendence?

Praying With Lior engages us on so many levels it transcends its middle-class Jewish milieu. It touches on the weird dynamics of family: Lior’s little sister has not only lost her mother but she can’t be the baby of the house—that’s his role. It depicts a warm and nurturing community that gathers around Lior, both to protect him and to be transformed by his miraculous presence. It’s about cruel limitations and sudden, blessed freedoms.

Apart from the loss to his family, the saddest thing about the death of Heath Ledger is that he was still unformed. He wasn’t a great actor, but he was a good and hugely appealing one, and he could have become great—he was nakedly desperate to measure up to the stardom that was thrust on him so suddenly.

Ledger was unlike most of today’s leading juveniles (Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Hartnett, Shia LaBeouf), who are light- middleweights with a feminine side. He was beefy, with a deep voice that was always more engaging, more musical, when he didn’t have to pretend to be American. I always thought of him—this is a fantasy—as an affable high-school jock who’s voted student-council president and lands the lead in the spring musical (maybe Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls) and gets by on charm—but who smokes a little too much dope and drops acid and comes to realize that charm means little in the universe’s vast scheme. So he broods and pushes himself and is perpetually unsatisfied … and grows as an artist, but at a cost to his autonomy.

Those of us who were, yes, charmed by Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale were stunned to see his work in Monster’s Ball. As the son who can never please his father and who finally, in a frenzy, shoots himself in the heart, he was so raw that he was difficult to watch. He wasn’t classically trained, and he couldn’t take refuge in craft or use the Method to harness his emotions. He wanted to push the boundaries like Johnny Depp, but he lacked Depp’s self-protective nuttiness.

Ledger never completely transformed—not even in Brokeback Mountain, in which his gay Marlboro Man Ennis Del Mar was more of a brilliant impersonation than a flesh-and-blood human being. But there was something hypnotic about his cowboy lockjaw and uncanny low tones. Ledger made Ennis’s whole life subtextual; he made you feel the unbridgeable gap between his mythical affect and the emotions that he didn’t dare unleash.

In life, Ledger probably had license to act out too much. Film actors are fragile creatures, and if that sounds patronizing, well, it’s meant to: I am their patron, and so are you. In return for celebrity and its attendant privileges, we ask our movie stars to stay beautiful and, even more important, to stay open, to drop the kinds of defenses that keep us all from imploding. It’s no wonder most of them self-medicate like mad. Heath Ledger’s work was inspiring, but his death is a reminder of what a dangerous art this can be.

Rambo
Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Lionsgate. R.

The Witnesses
Directed by André Téchiné. Strand. NR.

Praying With Lior
Directed by Ilana Trachtman. First Run Features. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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