Serious hats, boys and girls. This week, I’m reviewing a movie that Netflix had rated more than 4 stars for me (which tells me there’s a good shot that I’m both boring and extremely niche) that parades as being about arranged marriages. It isn’t, really. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Netflix had this one down as a sure thing because the pair of female leads are real. They lead real lives, experience real joy, awkwardness, hope, and fear. They are both also genuinely religious. Nasira is a traditional Muslim who moved to New York from Syria at the age of 5, and Rochel (pronounced ROH-hl with the Hebrew rolled ‘h’) is an Orthodox Jew. It isn’t often that sincere members of a very conservative religious group are given a fair, not to mention central, role in movies, and two such as these serve as a remarkable example of how such characters should be handled. This by itself was enough to carry the movie, for me, but the realistic balance that the movie gives to both women’s lives is nothing short of stunning.
The movie opens the week before classes start at a public school in New York. The teachers are going through cultural sensitivity training and getting to know each other before the students show up. Painfully shy Rochel and slightly more outgoing, but wisely reserved Nasira stand out from the rest of the teachers as the others talk about live-in boyfriends proposing or topless beaches on vacation. The principal asks Nasira if she wears a hajib because her father makes her; no, she wears it because it is an expression of her beliefs and what she believes about feminine modesty. Rochel goes home to a traditional Jewish meal and Nasira to a traditional Muslim dinner. These are warm homes with good fathers and loving mothers. There are no easy targets here, no convenient villains. Nasira and Rochel are different from those around them, but they choose it, and they are happy.
Rochel is a special needs teacher for a blind child, so as the school year opens, she will be in Nasira’s class to help him get through his classwork. The obvious fourth-grade question surfaces: don’t you two want to kill each other or something? How do you explain centuries of religious conflict to a fourth grader in a classroom in New York? The tidy answer they give their students about self-identity, and their implicit rejection of conflict, is disproven in their own lives as they become friends and spend time together. There are no easy answers in life, even if we all believe that two such women can be friends. It is only at this point that the question of arranged marriage arises. Rochel is due to begin the formal Jewish process, and Nasira’s father has started inviting men to dinner as candidates. They commiserate the fear and lack of control that comes from such a process, but Nasira never questions that it is right – it is a matter of faith – and Rochel’s crisis of faith late in the movie only brings into starker relief the brokenness they are rejecting in embracing their respective faiths.
I mentioned balance. Most movies – most plots, in fact – tend to pick an element of life and make a movie about it. Work life is emphasized over home life; family is excluded in favor of friends; whole stories are told out of a single room. While this may save on staging and extras, it presents an intentionally-limited view of what a character’s life is like. Not so in Arranged. The leads have family, they have work, they have social responsibilities. They have conflict everywhere, but no one flies off the handle. No one ever makes you sit back and think, okay, that really didn’t make sense. Well, except the suitors. The comic relief they bring, though, comes from the fact that we’ve met those guys before, and they really are that weird. Rochel just has an extraordinary string of them. Everyone, on balance, lives realistically within their conditions. There are no convenient villains, there are no convenient answers, and there are no convenient solutions.
Likewise are there no convenient themes. I’d love to tell you this movie is about arranged marriage. It’s what the trailer says. It isn’t. I’d love to tell you that it’s about cultural conflict, either between religions or between traditional and modern. It isn’t that, either. It isn’t about friendship, nor is it about love. It’s about all of those things, and about none of them. It’s about life. And it’s beautiful. Time goes on, you make your decisions, you live with them and soldier on. You can’t change the people around you, but maybe just once you can yell at them. You will one day turn into your mother. Nothing is ever simple. Everything is simpler than you think. What can I say? I loved this movie not because it had something powerful to say, but because it had nothing to say. It didn’t need to.
- Would I see this movie on opening weekend? The truth is, this is complicated. I loved this movie. 5-stars loved it. But it’s a hard movie to enjoy. If everything were just like this, I’d stop watching movies, I think.
- Would I watch this movie on TV? Again, this movie is a commitment. I think, in the right mood, I would, but more often, I’d go flipping for NCIS reruns.
- Would I recommend this movie to anyone? Absolutely. The details are all there. The nuance of the religious rites and traditions are helpful, if you know some of them, but this is a beginner’s level tutorial, and I think that looking at the world through someone else’s eyes – especially a real world – is something worth doing.