A little girl who thought she was the ordinary member of the family discovers a talent for spelling, in this thoughtful movie based on the best-seller by Myla Goldberg. But this is not a fictionalized version of the superb documentary Spellbound. It is a story about breaking apart, from the letters in a word to the connections and relationships we most rely on, and about the way we try to hold on, and, if we fail, to heal what is broken.
Images of breaking apart appear over and over again in the stories we tell. Yeats described it in his poem, “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart,” he wrote. “The center cannot hold.” And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. E.M. Forster said the most important rule was “only connect.” According to Jewish folklore, the world began with a great splintering when the divine light God poured into vessels shattered them. So it is the obligation of all people to put the pieces back together again. The duty is called “tikkun olam,” which means “to heal the world.”
The scholars within the Jewish community who take this command most literally are those who study Abraham Abulafia and kabbalah, from the Madonna-chic red bracelet-wearers who skim along the surface to the mystics who believe they can see the world in the patterns of its pieces.
In this story, Saul Nauman (Richard Gere) is a professor who studies kabbalah but has never achieved the transcendent ecstasy of those who have mastered it, especially Abraham Abulafia, the subject of his dissertation. He is devoted and affectionate, but not always sensitive or aware. Saul does not realize how narcisisstic his attentions are.
He does not see that his daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) feels left out and unimportant because of the attention Saul gives her brother Aaron (Max Minghella). He does not see that Aaron is seeking something to heal his own sense of being incomplete. He does not see that his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) feels both smothered and disconnected, that she is seeking something even she does not understand to help her make sense of her own perception of what is broken.
And he can never guess that these things will be revealed by Eliza’s simple but inexplicable gift for spelling. Somehow, she just seems to know how words break down into pieces. Saul becomes fascinated with this — can it be that she has found a way to tap into Abulafia’s ability to understand the way the patterns are where the whole universe is found?
Screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of Maggie and Jake) creates a mosaic of her own, an assemblage out of small, shiny pieces: the family members and their various fears and dreams. Saul and Miriam see connections that do not exist while their children long for connections they wish they had.
The underrated Gere, not anyone’s first thought to play an observant Jew, is fine, in part because he makes no effort to “act Jewish.” He just acts like a man who does not recognize his self-involvement and who can only see his family as reflections of himself. Cross is solomnly lovely as Eliza, and when she looks out from the stage, visualizing the word she has to spell, we feel her sense of wonder, magic, and mastery.
This is an ambitious undertaking, and translating such an intensely metaphorical story to screen inevitably unbalances it so that it often looks like just another dysfunctional family story instead of a meditation on the nature of connection. It is uneven and ultimately, inevitably, unsuccessful in making that part of it work. But it raises the questions powerfully, and that is enough to begin that connection — that healing — it calls upon all of us to try for.
Parents should know that this movie includes brief strong language (two f-words), an explicit sexual situation and some implied nudity. There are tense and unhappy family confrontations and (spoiler alert) a character becomes mentally ill.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for the members of this family to talk to each other. They should also talk about tikkun olam and their own faith or value traditions of the responsibility for “repairing the world.”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spellbound, the wonderful documentary about the national Spelling Bee, and Searching for Bobby Fischer, based on the real-life story of chess champion Josh Waitzkin, and the impact his experience had on his family.
Families who want to know more about Abraham Abulafia and kabbalah will find many resources online. The national Spelling Bee website has information about participation and some great materials for spellers and anyone else interested in words.