“We think you should start seeing a doctor,” is one of the earliest lines uttered to the quiet, grieving Ben (Jason Schwartzman), and the hilarity of its layered and misunderstood meaning, “see” as in “date” and “doctor” as in “plastic surgeon,” reveal director Nathan Silver’s playfully claustrophobic exploration of family loved, lost, found, and tolerated in the Sundance feature “Between the Temples.”
“Between the Temples” stunningly couples its 16mm cinematography with tight close-ups, overlapping dialogue, and sharp comedic timing to present an intimately comical portrait of anguish amidst faith. Co-written with C. Mason Wells, cantor Ben reconnects with his former music teacher Carla (Carol Kane) as each one offers the other a chance at deeper relationships: Ben to humanity and Carol to spirituality.
In the ensemble, Ben’s mothers, Judith (Dolly De Leon) and Meria (Caroline Aaron), frequently concern themselves with his love life, introducing him to women alongside their Rabbi, Bruce (Robert Smigel) and, most obsessively, his daughter, Gabby (Madeline Weinstein).
Bedroom doors scream, menus are the sizes of toddlers, and hands are constantly touching or hiding a person’s face, offering a balance of discomfort and delight. As the film progresses, Ben and Carol’s admiration for each other grows and Carol helps Ben rediscover his voice, as he has stopped singing since losing his wife (or as Ben himself puts it, his “sound”), comparing his journey to the musicality of birds. Surprisingly, however, what strikes hardest is not the dynamic between Carol and Ben, though it is incredibly touching, but the quiet dynamic between Ben and his mother, Judith.
During the film’s Q&A following the screening, both Kane and Silver mentioned Carla being inspired by their own mothers. “Much of her spirit is in the movie,” said Silver. In one scene, as Ben begins to cross the threshold of his depression he dresses himself in his mother’s clothes.
She compliments him and says depression is in his blood and comes from her: a visceral image of a man wearing his mom’s suit and sadness. Later, as Ben and Carol find more joy in their association, Judith tenderly says, “I’m not feeling your pain,” and Ben offers to pose for one of her paintings. It is a quick but deeply cherished moment of intimacy not exactly at the center of the film but sustainable in its pillowing of the narrative.
Right as the film feels like it’s beginning to drag — during a Shabbat including Ben’s family, Rabbi Bruce’s family, and Carol — the sequence begins to flourish into the most intense and beloved of the film. Shot across two nights and edited over three months, it is the hysterical pinnacle of the relationships at play in “Between the Temples” and spins the film into its end.
One person in the crowd asked Silver about the ambiguity of Carol and Ben’s affection, if it was that of a teacher and student or one shared between lovers, and Silver noted this was heavily discussed between the actors. But, what he liked most about their story was it eluded such simplistic certainty.
At the film’s core, and beautifully iterated by Smigel, “Between the Temples” is not solely about organized and labeled relationships and religion, but the humility behind that faith and the ways in which it is intricately shared, like birds of a feather flocking together.
“Between the Temples” is a sales title at Sundance.