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Based on a true story from the late 90s, Kevin Asch's debut drama shows the clash of Hasidic values with modern criminality. Jesse Eisenberg stars.
"All men", says Rebbe Horowitz (Bern Cohen) to his congregation of young Hasidic scholars near the beginning of Holy Rollers, "must know where they stand in relation to HaShem's [i.e. God's] presence. Either you move closer, or further away."
The rabbi is drawing his lesson from the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, but one of his pupils, 20-year-old Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), is distracted. It is clear what is expected of Sam: get married, become a rabbi himself, and start a family of his own. Yet he covets the rather different freedoms and easy affluence enjoyed by his disreputably secularised neighbour Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), and so is easily tricked into becoming an international ecstasy mule for him.
Unlike his devout best friend Leon (Jason Fuchs), Sam does not return to the fold once he has realised his mistake, but instead quickly develops a taste - and a talent - for this new life of money, drugs, women and apparent independence. The constant travelling from his Brooklyn home to Amsterdam takes him both literally and metaphorically 'further away' from his community and religion, until he learns, too late, that there will be no easy going back from the path that he has chosen.
Kevin Asch's feature debut may be inspired by a real late-90s case of a New York drug trafficker who exploited trustworthy Hasidim as his couriers to evade the suspicions of customs officials, but Antonio Macia's screenplay refashions these materials as a cautionary tale of temptation, sin and exile. This tension between modern reality and Old Testament parable is replayed within the character of Sam himself, who blends a hunger for the secular pleasures of the Nineties with a set of ancient, traditional values that he must struggle constantly to maintain. Fiercely intelligent yet also deeply naive, he will soon find himself cast out of his old world, and in trouble in the new.
The themes of cultural clash and uneasy assimilation in a criminal context have already been explored in, for example, Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in America and Brian De Palma's Scarface, but Asch's film differs from all of these - both in its respectfully handled Hasidic setting, and in its total eschewal of the sort of gunplay and murder more normally associated with this kind of film. For some viewers, the relative absence of violence may make Holy Rollers seem a little sedate for a crime flick- but the focus here on the gradual corruption of Sam's character engenders an intense moral drama, kept riveting by a typically nervy performance from Eisenberg, (which, it's worth noting, was filmed prior to Eisenberg's Oscar-nominated turn in The Social Network).
Kevin Asch's morality drama restages the Fall of Man as a modern, real-life crime story. It is understated, but compelling, with yet another standout performance from Jesse Eisenberg.
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On Film4: 02 April 2015