Film : Hebrew Center film touches spirit
"Praying With Lior," the inspiring and well-made documentary film playing at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven Sunday, July 6, would never make the grade in high-concept driven Hollywood, despite the growing popularity of spiritual themes. That it has been produced demonstrates how valuable independent filmmaking is to audiences who care about the medium.
Lior Liebling is a devotedly Jewish, high-functioning teenager with Down syndrome. The title of an article Lior's mother wrote about her son provided the movie's title.
"I am mystified about why he loves to pray so much," said his late mother Devora, who died of cancer when Lior was six. It is this frankness that keeps the movie from becoming maudlin.
"Praying With Lior" starts with home movies that are effectively intercut throughout, starting from the time Lior was a baby and following him through his childhood.
The film does not turn into a tract about Judaism or a treatise in proper treatment for the mentally challenged, even though more than 54 million people are disabled in the U.S. It spends its time examining insightfully the day-to-day interactions of a family where one of the children is mentally handicapped and everyone must adapt accordingly.
Lior - the name means "my light" - is welcomed and accepted not just into his own family but the entire Philadelphia community where his father and his late mother have served as rabbis. He plays Little League, and, of course, participates enthusiastically in religious services.
Director Ilana Trachtman skillfully treads the razor thin line between sentimentality and compassion. After establishing the family dynamic in which Lior participates, the director follows the preparations for his bar mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Condescension isn't part of the picture. Lior's father, Mordechai, guides his son through the necessary schooling insistently but without being overly controlling.
The other kids at the orthodox day school Lior attends understand their classmate's limitations and accept him for who he is. His stepmother, Lynne, manages with grace and restraint to act as a maternal influence while respecting the place of Lior's mother in the family.
Brother Yoni comes closest to the heart of the matter when he says, "I don't know if God exists, but if he does, Lior is definitely closer to him than anyone I know." Others suggest Lior has special spiritual powers, and the film makes room for such inflated talk without necessarily buying into it. As one person points out, if Lior were living in a community where Christmas carols were the order of the day, he would be singing them.
When the day of his bar mitzvah comes, Lior rises to the occasion, reading from the Torah and giving a speech that, with support from his father, is heartfelt and incisive. The obvious, clichéd way to end "Praying With Lior" would be with the joyful party following the bar mitzvah ceremony. It is a measure of Ms. Trachtman's skill and the overall success of the film that it instead continues into the aftermath of Lior's life and the other members of his family.
Rabbi Brian Walt of West Tisbury, a close friend of the family who attended rabbinical school with both Lior's parents and appears in the film, will attend the screening and answer questions.
"Praying with Lior," Sunday, July 6, 7:30 pm as part of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center's Summer Institute offered in conjunction with the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, 130 Center Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $10.
Brook Robards reviews art, film, books and theater for The Times.