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The Boston Phoenix Priceless

"Rubies" is a diamond in the rough.

By Peter Keough

APRIL 6, 1998: 

At first glance, a feminist parable set in a Chassidic community starring non-Jewish actors doesn't seem likely to win many fans. But if nothing else, Boaz Yakin, writer/director of A Price Above Rubies, has chutzpah. His debut film, Fresh, drew the ire of critics who felt he was presumptuous in making a film about African-Americans and Hispanics in the inner city (nobody seemed concerned that in this tale of a chess prodigy turned drug dealer the director wasn't a grandmaster). More so in that impressive if flawed debut feature, spurious controversy mires Yakin's Rubies in the rough. Transcending its immediate subject, the film explores the universal themes of desire, compromise, loyalty, treachery, and the affirmation of art in a bold and sensitively crafted drama with a vivid setting and complex, sympathetic characters brought to life by outstanding performances.

Foremost among the latter is Renée Zellweger, Academy Award nominee for last year's Jerry Maguire. She's Sonia, an independent-minded young woman introduced as a young girl (Jackie Ryan) in an awkwardly lyrical prologue. Sonia declares that she loves her sickly brother Yossi (Shelton Dane) more than God; Yossi reproves her by relating a story about a Wandering Jew-like family relative who had similarly offended the deity. Then he gives her a ruby for her birthday. Sonia's discerning eye detects that the ruby is a fake and rejects it (the story, on the other hand, sounds phony, but Yakin unfortunately holds onto it). Crestfallen, Yossi sets out to prove himself by swimming in a lake and, presumably, drowning.

A cut is made to the adult Sonia giving birth. She retains her legacy of discernment, integrity, and irrepressible self-assertion, as is seen at her newborn's bris, where she threatens the attending rabbi with a slap if he makes her baby cry. Husband Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), on the other hand, a slavishly traditional man-child astute in the Torah, faints at the rite's climax.

Theirs is no match made in heaven, as an excruciating lovemaking scene makes clear (Mendel is against such non-reproductive niceties as disrobing or experiencing pleasure). Sonia finds herself suffering really hot flashes and an irrational attraction to her in-laws, such as strait-laced sister-in-law Rachel (Julianna Margulies), who comforts Sonia in her travail only to be nonplussed when she gets a big wet one on the lips. Somewhat cannier is Mendel's brother Sender (Christopher Eccleston), a jewelry dealer whose books don't bear close inspection. He respects Sonia's shrewd gemologist instincts; more important he sees in her a kindred, subversive sexuality. As he explains to her the duties of the job he's offering her with his outfit, he gracelessly shtups her against the wall.

Needless to say, since many viewers will be scandalized at this point, Sonia is racked with guilt and not a little exhilaration -- piqued, no doubt, by pesky visitations by the deceased Yossi. That magical-realist intrusion, supplemented by appearances by the Beggar Woman (Kathleen Chalfant), the embodiment of the haunted soul of Yossi's tale, may have seemed a good idea at the time to Yakin but it's more Isaac Bashevis Singer than his story needs or can bear. More to the point is Ramon (Allen Payne), a jewelry-district working drone whose kitschy designs Sonia encourages as his hunky virility heats up her suppressed desires.

For what's really priceless in Rubies are the uncompromising characterizations and the courage of the performers in pursuing them to whatever realms, however debased or elevated, they might lead. As the clueless but pure-hearted Mendel, Fitzgerald is infuriating and endearing, and as his sister Margulies is tough but sympathetic in a role that could easily have been two-dimensional. Eccleston exudes diabolical charm as the tempter whose vile intents backfire.

Most of all it's Zellweger who triumphs, her putty face malleable but illuminated as it mirrors her tumultuous spiritual and carnal journey. Heartbreaking in its defiance and contrition as she faces her accusers, bracing as she faces down her business rivals with savvy aplomb, wrenching when she loses everything and thrilling when she gains a new life, her gemlike performance is well worth the price of Yakin's occasional sophomoric lapses and his accusers' small-minded intolerance.

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