Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bee Season

Film: Bee Season (2005)
Dir: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Tagline: Words may define us, but it's love that connects us.
Rating: **1/2 out of 5 stars

For the Diamondback....

Do not be fooled by the title – Bee Season has nothing to do with the stinging insects and surprisingly very little to do with spelling bees.

The new film by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) centers on family dysfunction and spiritual rejuvenation. The religious context specifically involves the Kabbalah - Jewish mysticism - and the ability for average human beings to “heal” the world through selflessness. Such thought-provoking ideas, supported by stunning visuals, are admirable; however, the film fails to hold the viewer’s attention or earn sympathy for its characters.

Based on Myla Goldberg’s novel of the same name, Bee Season tells the story of a Jewish family struggling with spiritual uncertainty. Saul Naumann (Richard Gere, Chicago) is a Judaism scholar who unknowingly pressures his family to fulfill his expectations. His wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat), a Jewish convert with a mysterious past, quietly descends into mental illness.

Their young daughter Ellie (newcomer Flora Cross), once seemingly ignored by her father, suddenly becomes the apple of his eye when she wins the district spelling bee. Saul becomes obsessively interested in his daughter’s newfound talents and tells her that she can “reach the ear of God” through words. While Ellie is coached by her father in spelling and its spiritual potential, her brother Aaron (Max Minghella) – formerly the family prodigy – rebels against his father and becomes a Hare Krishna devotee.

At the center of the film is an idea in the Kabbalah known as “tikkun olam”, which translates in Hebrew as “repairing the world.” The belief is that God tried to place his divine light in a vessel, which subsequently shattered. The shards of the vessel represent the shattered pieces of the world, which can only be repaired to “hold the light” if people perform selfless deeds.

Ellie’s ability to arrange letters into words symbolizes the rejoining of the shattered fragments. McGehee and Siegel use beautiful imagery to make this point. When the girl is struggling to spell “origami,” she closes her eyes and a paper bird shows her how. When she is unsure of the final letter in “macramé”, suddenly every “e” in the room, from Exit signs to Welcome banners, begins to glow.

The visuals are effective, and one of the film’s better aspects. Unfortunately, it relies so heavily on visuals that character development is lost. We are provided so little background on the Naumann family that it becomes difficult to care about their problems. Too much of the movie is spent on visual metaphors rather than real human emotion. The consequence is a bored, apathetic audience.

In a nutshell, Bee Season is about letters and God. Ellie finds she can repair her family through selflessness and, yes, spelling. In doing so, she “repairs the world” a tiny bit. Although the movie sometimes feels like an infomercial for the Kabbalah, it ultimately presents the message that religion is about self-sacrifice, not self-interest.

If you are a spiritual person, you will most likely be moved by that message. If you are intolerant of religious suggestion, you may find moments of the film unbearable. For everyone in between: you will at least find pleasure in the unique visuals.