Orthodox Jews are not often the subject of feature films. But a French-Canadian drama about a relationship between an ultra-religious woman and a secular man grieving the loss of his father garnered strong buzz from 2014’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Felix and Meira won the Best Canadian Feature Film award at the festival. It was the second Jewish-themed title in a row to take that prize at TIFF, after 2013’s When Jews Were Funny.
The win may have been unexpected, as the film is restrained and low key. However, it was a deserved victory.
The film follows Meira, an Orthodox Jewish mother played by Fill the Void’s Hadas Yaron. She is uncomfortable with her religious identity. She has a husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), and child, but tells a friend she does not want to bear more children. She feels little emotional attachment to Shulem and commits small acts of rebellion, such as playing smooth soul records when he is out of the house.
Meanwhile, Felix (Martin Dubreuil) is a lonely man whose father recently died. He often sees Meira at a local bakery. In the wake of his father’s death, Felix asks her for religious advice about how to pay respect to his dad.
What begins as a casual friendship becomes something more. He longs for her and tells Meira he hates being a bachelor. “What’s it like to be single?” she replies. “I’d like to know what that’s like.”
As her relationship with Felix blossoms, Meira keeps some of her religious customs, but eschews others. She hesitates to meet Felix’s gaze but she does not flinch when he touches her face. It is hard for Felix to figure out these boundaries, but it does not take much for Meira to let him in.
When they walk, talk and laugh together, it is a relief. His family is distant and he has no girlfriend, so he loves the company. Her love for her husband is barely there and she yearns for the slightest bit of freedom. When he plays music for Meira, her lips curl into a smile. His father did not smile at him often, Felix tells her.
Meira is mostly silent, observing the Orthodox Jewish community around her and pondering her distance from it. She must figure out whether to remain devout or abandon her husband for this new friend.
The romance may be forbidden, but Felix and Meira is far from a film meant to attract provocative reactions from Jewish audiences. Instead, it is a thought-provoking glimpse of how hard it is to remain religious, especially in a thriving multicultural centre like Montreal.
The drama is both a sensitive and daring look at the ultra-religious community. Writer and director, Maxime Giroux, explained before a screening of the film at TIFF, that living with Orthodox Jewish neighbours in Montreal’s Mile End district inspired the story and setting.
Meanwhile, Yaron and Dubreuil are gripping in their performances. Due to the longing of both of their characters, the drama is mostly introspective. Both actors carry the sorrow in their faces.
In some scenes, Giroux keeps the camera on either Felix or Meira as they interact with a world that they do not quite fit in. We hear their heavy breathing and feel the weight of their sadness.
The director uses dim lighting, so that when Meira is alone in her home, there is an angelic white drawing her outside – a metaphor for her curiosity into the outside world. Giroux also lights up Mile End with moody blues, a reflection of his title characters’ sadness and restrained desire.
The film, which has moments in French, Yiddish and English, is not an offensive portrait of the Orthodox community, although some may flinch when Shulem (Meira’s husband) reaches a violent breaking point with one of the characters.
However, the film does not avoid Shulem’s point-of-view. When he notices Meira’s behaviour and meets up with Felix, he is very protective of his wife, knowing what it would mean to lose her.
Felix and Meira is a tense, moody, thoughtful film with excellent acting. It explores themes of love, identity and religious identity in a nuanced way not often shown on the big screen.
TJFF presents Felix and Meira for two screenings as part of its Chai Tea & A Movie screenings. Dec. 14 at 1 and 4 p.m. Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk, 5095 Yonge St. Toronto. www.tjff.com