The Obedient Son (Film Review: “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch”)

A funny and touching story about a nice Orthodox Jewish boy who breaks his Yiddish mother’s heart by falling head over heels for a hot shiksa. True Love or Recipe for Disaster?

SnapShot Plot

Taken on face value, The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is a familiar, light-hearted romp about a sheltered Orthodox Jew of marrying age whose overbearing mother tortures in her quest to marry him off to a nice Jewish girl. Enter the shiksa (female gentile) he meets at University and suddenly his whole world is turned upside down. Motti is the kind of son who’s never challenged anything his family – in particular his mother – has planned out for his life. He works for his father in the family insurance business, lives at home, and miserably submits to a never ending series of fix-ups at his mother’s behest. He is so beaten down that he moves and walks like a resigned old man, even though his real life has yet to take wing. The only connection Motti has with the world outside his ultra traditional community is found in the classes he attends at a local German university. It’s there that he meets Laura, a sexy and flirtatious student who seems to regard him with the same bemused interest one might have for an exotic animal in the zoo.

The character of Motti is well captured by young Swiss-Israeli actor, Joel Basman whose shy expressions and tentative rebelliousness he makes entirely believable, while Noémie Schmidt’s Laura comes across as too much of a party girl for anyone to take too seriously. Still, though, between these two disparate characters there is a spark, albeit more of a surface flirtation than anything which might pose an existential threat to the plan for Motti’s entire future. Not yet, that is.

Parting Shot

If anyone was put off by the English dubbed trailer above, fear not, as the film itself is well served by normal subtitles.

Directed by Michael Steiner, The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch was selected as the Swiss entry for Best Foreign Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. Thomas Meyer adapted the screenplay from his own debut novel, called Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey into the Arms of a Shiksa.

Admittedly, many of these characters are painted in broad brushstrokes, and there’s no shortage of stereotyping in its depictions of overbearing Jewish mothers and their put upon husbands and sons. In fact, in recent years the cinematic trope has received pretty wide treatment within the Indian community, and with the success of Crazy, Rich Asians we’ll be seeing it played out more and more within that culture too. But because this is a comedy – and a fairly hilarious one at times – it’s fair to say that a certain amount of caricature is not only tolerated, it’s de rigeur. The additional conceit of having Motti himself occasionally narrate the plot – in well placed confession cams – makes for another tongue in cheek touch. What also makes the film unique is its all Yiddish screenplay, with the exception of Motti’s conversations in German with Laura, who herself tries to learn the occasional native word, to Motti’s delight.

Whatever the language of love may be, the film seems to be telling us, before you say “I do” you have to have the guts to sometimes tell your mother, “I don’t”. And who knows? She might just know what’s best for you, after all.

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer:

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