A scene from “The Unorthodox”
A scene from “The Unorthodox”

Birth of Shas party recounted with humor, heart in ‘The Unorthodox’

It’s 1983, and ultra-Orthodox widower Yaakov Cohen is furious that his daughter has been expelled from her exclusive Jerusalem yeshiva because, as the principal puts it, “she doesn’t fit in.”

That’s code, of course, for “Sephardim don’t fit in,” and it sets the tone for “The Unorthodox,” a 2018 Israeli film based on the emergence of the Sephardic Torah Guardians, or Shas party, which burst onto the country’s political scene that year to challenge the Ashkenazi power structure.

Israeli writer-director Eliran Malka’s terrifically entertaining debut feature has the wit and brio of a heist film. Yaakov, the film’s underdog hero, fights his battle with an irresistible blend of charm, idealism and pragmatism that, poignantly, can only carry him so far.

East Bay International Jewish Film Festival director Riva Gambert thought the film important and timely enough —given the upcoming Israeli elections in April — that she scheduled it twice during the festival, at 7:30 p.m, Saturday, March 9, and 4:15 p.m. Sunday, March 10.

“The Unorthodox” presents the Agudat Yisrael party of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe as controlling the power and purse strings in Israel, especially Jerusalem’s, ultra-Orthodox community. Yaakov preaches Sephardic self-determination, but his main goal is to get a bigger chunk of the budget to improve his community’s yeshivas and other facilities.

But Malka (who created the hit Israeli TV show “Shababnikim”) isn’t interested in getting into the weeds of policy and platforms. The motor that propels his film is the nitty gritty of running a campaign: Which rabbi to cultivate for an endorsement, how many vans with posters and loudspeakers to put on the street, where to get the money.

Yaakov (the bearish, twinkly-eyed Shuli Rand, onscreen for the first time since 2004’s “Ushpizin”) is aided and abetted by a pair of sidekicks: Reb Moshe (Yaacov Cohen) knows which ultra-Orthodox rabbis have the most influence, while shochet and mohel Vigal Yakin (Yoav Levi) brings a zeal for the cause that sometimes crosses the bounds of legality.

“We’ll make the Black Panthers look like pink pussycats compared to us,” Vigal proclaims at the outset of their quixotic venture, referencing the Israeli Black Panthers, a 1970s-era protest organization of Mizrahi Jews inspired by the American group.

It’s a laugh line, of course, because there’s nothing remotely intimidating about these three guys.

Much later, Vigal supplies another key pop culture reference. Running some errand in the car with Yaakov, he puts on the Bee Gees’ tune, “How Deep Is Your Love.” Yaakov gently points out that the song is inappropriate for religious Jews, but he can’t help laughing that a group calls itself “the Beechies.”

As the trio builds support and momentum, Yaakov stands before his mirror imagining the deeply gracious interviews and speeches he’ll give following Shas’ upset victory. His vanity isn’t presented as a flaw or failing but as an impulse that every viewer will identify with.

Although religious faith is omnipresent in “The Unorthodox” — whether it’s belief in God or ritual observance or the ubiquitous yarmulkes and payot in archival photos — it’s not the quality that ultimately defines Yaakov. That would be integrity.

His ethos is reflected in the declaration, “We’re a party of the people, not of offices and neckties.” It comes to the fore, however, when Yaakov is forced to choose between personal reward and the party’s larger success.

Then we discover how deep his love (for the cause) is.

My lone quibble with “The Unorthodox” is that I wish the well-etched female characters, Yaakov’s confident daughter and his outspoken sister, were given more to do. Then again, the world in which this deeply satisfying film takes place was, and still is, a patriarchy.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.