Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lies My Father Told Me (1975)

          Earnest and insightful, Lies My Father Told Me is a nostalgic drama inspired by screenwriter Ted Allan’s childhood in the Jewish ghettos of 1920s Montreal, a colorful setting few viewers are likely to have encountered elsewhere. Adding to the film’s novelty is its emotionally turbulent storyline, because the hero of the piece is a young boy, David Herman (Jeffrey Lynas), who grows up torn between the loving companionship of his deeply religious grandfather, Zaida (Yossi Yadin), and the chilly secularism of his irresponsible father, Harry (Len Birman). Although he’s old and tired, Zaida spends his days driving a horse-drawn cart through poor neighborhoods in Montreal, collecting junk that he resells for a meager but steady living.
          Young David’s favorite times are the Sundays when he can ride alongside Zaida, because Zaida nurtures his grandson with idealistic lessons and wonderful fantasies. Harry, meanwhile, is an irritable ne’er-do-well constantly pestering Zaida for money with which to pursue get-rich-quick schemes. However, Zaida has little tolerance for Harry’s nonsense or for Harry’s borderline-abusive treatment of Annie (Marilyn Lightstone), Harry’s wife and Zaida’s daughter. Seen through young David’s eyes, the Hermans’ neighborhood is an almost mythical place filled with larger-than-life characters—the town whore, the town witch—and Zaida serves as the neighborhood’s unifying force, a steadfast voice of morality and reason.
          Director Ján Kadár, a Czech émigré, does a fine job of capturing the textures of life within an impoverished, insular community, so details like the manure-drenched hay in Zaida’s stable and the rickety stairs leading to the Herman apartment are vivid. Yet Allan and Kadár err by including too much evocative detail. The simple story could have been told in 80 minutes, but Lies My Father Told Me drags out across 102 minutes thanks to repetitive scenes and unnecessary tangents. (Do we really need to see David learn about vaginas while sitting with a neighbor child whose dog is about to give birth?)
          The film’s syrupy score doesn’t help matters, amplifying the contours of a story that’s already quite sentimental, and inconsistent performances are another problem. Yadin exudes wry gravitas in every scene, but Lynas is awkward and unappealing—he comes across more whiny than fragile. Birman fails to invest his boorish character with redeeming values (it’s hard to sympathize with an obnoxious putz), and Lightsone is a non-entity because her role is underdeveloped. Still, many viewers reacted strongly to the movie’s tender portrait of a lost era, and Allen scored an Oscar nomination for his script.

Lies My Father Told Me: FUNKY

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