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A Price Above Rubies (1998)

by on August 9, 2010
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The title of “A Price Above Rubies” comes from the Song of Solomon. In the most common version, it reads: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”

But there’s another reading: “A woman of fortitude who can find? For her price is far above rubies.”

Virtue and fortitude are hardly the same thing. In the Biblical reading of virtuous, it basically means a woman who is humble, takes good care of her husband and children, and is utterly subservient in her marriage.

Fortitude means strength of mind — specifically the ability to endure hardship. It’s very much in this second vein that writer/director Boaz Yakin’s film explores the cloistered world of New York Hasidic Jews.

Renée Zellweger plays Sonia Horowitz, a young wife who’s just given birth to her first child, a boy. She has an arranged marriage with Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a serious religious scholar who literally lives and breaths his Judaism. So serious, in fact, that he resists Sonia’s attempts to make their lovemaking a shared experience, instead of the very one-sided, sacred (for him) affair.

(It’s a great racket: “Sorry, hon, foreplay is against my religion.”)

Sonia rebels, subtly at first but with increasing willpower. She confides her questioning of God’s laws (as interpreted by the Jews) to Rebbe Moshe (John Randolph), who is so inspired by this passionate young woman that he goes to his wife (Kim Hunter) to tell her how much he loves her, and how he regrets not showing her any appreciation for the past 20 years.

Unfortunately, Sonia ignited a flame of passion that the old rabbi’s body could not contain, and he dies that very night.

Sonia, who was raised by a master jeweler and has the gift herself, is recruited by her brother-in-law Sender (an intense Christopher Eccleston) to work for him. Three days a week she goes into the city to buy the best pieces she can find at a considerable markdown. Three days she works in Sender’s “shop” — a basement establishment that caters to a private clientele on a very exclusive (i.e., untaxed) basis.

Sonia grows in her new role, even as it fuels the split between her and Mendel. It gets to the point where she hardly looks after her son, instead leaving him with her sister-in-law (Julianna Margulies). She also finds herself having an affair with Sender, though it seems less about lust than a transaction — he grants her some measure of the independence she craves in return for sex.

One day at a shop run by a Pakistani who wouldn’t know quality jewelry if he sat on it, Sonia discovers a magnificent gold ring: Hand-crafted and one of a kind. She eventually learns it was made by Ramon (Allen Payne), a lowly assistant at that shop. Sonia tracks him down to his studio, and discovers a great artist in need of a sponsor.

Needless to say, such activities are frowned upon in the Hasidic community, and Sonia finds her self increasing, and eventually completely, ostracized.

I’m a big fan of Yakin’s early work — I repeatedly recommend “Fresh” to any and all who have likely never heard of it — though he’s segued into mainstream pap lately (“Remember the Titans,” “Uptown Girls,” the screenplay for “Prince of Persia”).

“A Price Above Rubies” isn’t a particularly good movie, though Zellweger shines in a tough, gritty role that foreshadowed her more serious acting ambitions. This movie came out two years after her breakout role in “Jerry Maguire,” and it’s a bold and non-commercial choice for an aspiring young performer. (Though one must admit, the pixie-faced actress is about as goy as they come.)

Made by Miramax when the Weinstein brothers were just emerging as a Hollywood powerhouse, “Rubies” reminds me in some ways of “A Serious Man”: A painstaking exploration of the nature of Judaism, and how men and women try and often fail to live up to its precepts. I didn’t particularly like “Serious Man,” either.

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