Charles Wahl’s quirky Canadian movie, The Mohel, deals with an ancient religious tradition, the brit milah, the solemn yet joyous circumcision ceremony which initiates an eight-day-old Jewish male into the fraternity of Jewish peoplehood. Performed by a mohel, a rabbi trained in this specialized surgical procedure, it’s the oldest custom in Judaism.
Wahl’s competently-crafted film, 14 minutes in length, portrays this rite of passage through the eyes of a young Jewish couple, James and Lola, and an Orthodox cleric, Rabbi Fishel.
The picture will be given its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which runs from March 16 to March 20.
The Mohel opens as James (Daniel Maslany), calls a rabbi (Sam Rosenthal) to inform him that his baby son is ready to be circumcised. James and Lola (Kaelen Ohm) live in a small unidentified town in Canada near a large body of water. Since very few Jews live here, a mohel from a nearby city must be called to perform the brit milah.
As it happens, Rabbi Fishel is available because another couple in the town has already booked him. Judging by his brief telephone conversation with James, the rabbi comes across as a shrewd businessman who has not been left behind by the conveniences of modern technology.
Lola is none too pleased that her husband has hired a mohel. She says she would be far more comfortable if a doctor performed the circumcision. James disagrees, saying the services of a physician are beyond their means.
In terms of his appearance, Rabbi Fishel appears to be from the Orthodox stream of Judaism. And he’s a friendly, approachable and sensitive person. As per the rabbi’s instructions, James has purchased all the creams and lotions necessary for him to carry out his task quickly and efficiently.
It’s clear to the rabbi that James and his handful of guests know precious little about the rites and customs of traditional Judaism. They’re basically assimilated Jews clinging to the last vestiges of their religion. Oddly enough, James’ black yarmulke keeps falling off his head, as if his connection to Judaism is nothing more than tenuous and transitory.
The rabbi circumcises the new-born baby, Maddox, or Menahem, as he is known in Hebrew, in professional fashion. He has obviously officiated at hundreds, if not thousands, of such ceremonies.
The guests are impressed, not only by his effortless technical skills but by his outgoing personality. Lola, in particular, expresses her appreciation of the rabbi.
As Rabbi Fishel leaves James’ home after the ceremony, he pays Maddox a compliment. “Your boy was terrific,” he says, implying that Maddox was cooperative as the foreskin of his penis was cut in conformity with a bris.
“You didn’t pull a fast one on me,” the rabbi adds, a remark that puzzles James.
In short order, Rabbi Fishel informs James he will not issue an official certificate of circumcision. This means that Maddox will not be recognized as a Jew by Orthodox authorities and may not be eligible for a bar mitzvah.
The rabbi’s explanation fails to satisfy James, who feels cheated.
The Mohel moves along at a brisk pace and imparts an appropriate atmosphere. The lead actors acquit themselves well enough, but Rosenthal, in an exceptional performance, steals the show.