Sundance 2024 Review: BETWEEN THE TEMPLES, A Cantor Finds His Voice In Life and Love

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: BETWEEN THE TEMPLES, A Cantor Finds His Voice In Life and Love

Trauma in all its facets -- experience, understanding, reconciliation -- and indie dramas are practically synonymous at this point. That, however, doesn’t make trauma or its natural consequence, mourning, or how it’s explored through film, any less relevant or meaningful.

Add to that a culturally specific spin like writer-director Nathan Silver (The Great Pretender, Stinking Heaven, Soft in the Head) and his co-writer, C. Mason Wells (Thirst Street, The Color Wheel, LOL), do via Between the Temples, and the experience on the audience’s side of the screen crosses over into the magically mystical and fantastically wondrous.

Between the Temples centers on one Benjamin “Ben” Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman), a cantor for a reasonably well-attended Jewish synagogue in wintry upstate New York (Binghamton to be exact). Facing the loss of his voice after the premature death of his wife, Ruth, in an accident, Ben finds himself at a literal, emotional, and metaphysical crossroads: a cantor without his or her voice isn’t a cantor and if he’s no longer a cantor, what — and who — is he anymore? It’s a personal conundrum Silver and Wells’s answer throughout Between the Temple’s sub-two-hour running time and not always in the way (or ways) audiences have come to expect from material with similar ideas or themes.

With his singing voice gone and no timetable for its return, Ben spends most of his time sulking around the family home. (The home he shared with his late wife remains out-of-bounds.) His mothers, Meira (Caroline Aaron) and Judith (Triangle of Sadness’s Dolly De Leon), are by turns sympathetic and occasionally exasperated with Ben and his inability to do or try anything to reconcile himself to the loss of his wife and just as importantly, move on with the rest of his life and move out of their creaky basement apartment.

By one, unkind definition, the brooding Ben qualifies as a not atypical sad-sack, a down-and-outer so caught up in his grief and mourning that he’s incapable of living meaningfully anymore. Even his rabbi, Bruce (comedy icon Robert Smigel), seems frustrated at Ben’s inability to begin the recovery process, let alone find a way out of it and through to the other side where his family, acquaintances, and others await.

An early scene turns on Rabbi Bruce emphasizing Ben’s absence, overlong by Rabbi Bruce’s standards. It’s the kind of scene that’s much funnier seen and heard than described, a function of context and delivery.

Since Ben can’t sing and fulfill his cantor duties, he’s given the task of preparing a handful of students for their respective bar and bat mitzvahs. As a typically coming-of-age ritual, most of Ben’s students are in junior high to high school with one exception: Carla Kessler (Carol Kane).

She’s not only an older, post-retirement student, she’s also Ben’s elementary school music teacher. He remembers her; she doesn’t remember him. Carla’s presence, along with her insistence that she wants to receive her bat mitzvah despite her supposedly advanced age, upends Ben’s life in unexpected ways.

A self-described “red diaper baby,” raised by ethnically Jewish, atheistic, Marxist parents, Carla represents a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the angst-ridden, borderline suicidal Ben to reconnect not just with his faltering Jewish faith on an intimate, personal level, but with someone like Carla learning — and living — the Jewish faith for the first time in her late 60s or early 70s. Not surprisingly, Carla also doubles as a narrative catalyst, upending Ben’s life, his relationship with his mothers, and his personal and professional future.

Given the Harold & Maude-inspired gap in Ben and Carla’s respective ages, it’s not long before their burgeoning relationship begins to receive intense, unwanted scrutiny, first by Carla’s adult son, Nat (Matthew Shear), later by Ben’s mothers, both of whom see a future for Ben in Rabbi Bruce’s daughter, Gabby (Madeline Weinstein), a struggling actress at a crossroads of her own. As expected, complications, emotional, cultural, and social, arise, leading to a painfully hilarious Shabbat dinner-take-all scene with all the major and minor characters and their contradictory inclinations, intentions, and motivations coming into conflict.

Silver and Wells' multi-layered script deftly moves from drama to comedy and back again, finding levity in the direst, darkest moments and the heart of darkness in the lightest ones, sometimes in the same scene. And with a career-best Schwartzman as the desperately unhappy, hapless Ben, Kane as the effervescently eccentric Carla, and a supporting cast who, one and all, understood the assignment and deliver accordingly, and Between the Temples enters must-see territory.

Between the Temples premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

Between the Temples

  • Nathan Silver
  • Nathan Silver
  • C. Mason Wells
  • Jason Schwartzman
  • Carol Kane
  • Dolly De Leon
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Between the TemplesC. Mason WellsCarol KaneCaroline AaronDolly De LeonJason SchwartzmanMadeline WeinsteinNathan SilverRobert SmigelComedy

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