“The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch” is a disappointing addition to the roster of Netflix’s Jewish-themed series and films. It’s surprising—to me, at least—that the film is Switzerland’s Oscars 2020 entry for the international feature film category. In a country where Jews are less than 1% of the population, it would have been wonderful to applaud the Swiss for entering a film that notably portrays an Orthodox Jewish community. But, alas, this is not the case, beginning with the original title of the film, “Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa.” Yes, the word “shiksa,” offensive as it is, was actually used. The film is based on a novel of the same name.
Motti Wolkenbruch, played by Joel Basman (whose performance won him the 2019 Swiss Film Award for Best Actor), lives a routine Orthodox life controlled by his mother, Judith—the ultimate Jewish mother stereotype. All Judith wants is for Motti to marry a nice Jewish girl and make babies. With his parents’ permission, Motti has taken some steps away from his community to study economics at the local university. All the while his mother is matching him up with what he considers plain, matronly girls.
Compare Motti to Kive Shtisel, the main character in the Netflix series “Shtisel.” While Kive lives a more insular life and his rebellion takes place wholly within his community, Kive’s need to paint raises the stakes in the story. He abandons his sweet young fiancé in favor of a twice-divorced woman with whom he is in love. Kive is multi-dimensional. His struggles are deep and relatable.
Motti skates on the surface. Yes, he departs from community norms by falling for Laura, a German woman who is not Jewish. But I didn’t see that move as brave or individualistic. I was through with him once he jokingly called Laura a shiksa. This name-calling made him no different from his mother, who loudly and repeatedly screams the word until she works herself into a hysterical state.
To make matters worse, the etymology of the word “shiksa” and its male counterpart, “sheygitz,” is rooted in the word “shketz,” which means “an abomination” or “something that is loathsome.” The definitions perfectly capture the attitude of Motti’s mother. Motti’s father, Moshe, on the other hand, is surprisingly tolerant of his son’s waywardness. He’s sweet, kind and even lovable—the opposite of his shrewish wife. But he, too, is overly familiar for the way he plays good cop/bad cop with Judith.
The most interesting character in this motley ensemble is a dying widow, a client of Motti’s father, who smokes cigarettes even though she has advanced lung cancer. She likes to dabble in reading tarot cards, and inevitably has some sobering predictions for Motti. But even she is derivative as she comforts him with the old chestnut that when one door closes, another one opens.
Motti gradually rejects his community. His first act of defiance is to forego buying glasses at the Orthodox Jewish optician in favor of selecting more trendy specs at a secular optical store. While he’s there, the clerk suggests that Motti go a step further and shave his beard. In some heavy-handed symbolism, Motti’s new frames offer him a fresh perspective on life.
Meanwhile, Motti’s mother is frantically staking out a “good match” for him. Motti meets Michéle, a smart, somewhat sassy young woman, and they mutually recognize that a relationship between them would be disastrous. Instead, the two decide to have some fun with their meddling mothers and pretend to get engaged. When the ruse blows up in everyone’s faces, Motti’s parents send him to Israel on the advice of their rabbi.
Once in Tel Aviv, Motti realizes he’s landed in the Om Shalom Center, a place that throws around words like “chakras” and “tantras.” Motti meets Yael, a devotee of the center. She’s yet another stereotype in Motti’s life. The two get drunk on the beach in Tel Aviv and Motti ends up losing his virginity to her. In the end, she is nothing more than a caricature of a lustful, secular Israeli. Her presence demonstrates that the film is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to Orthodox and secular Jews, particularly the women.
After his encounter with Yael, Motti adopts a new look that includes ditching his traditional white shirt and black pants in favor of jeans. The new Motti, all the more smitten with Laura, returns home to pursue her without reservation. He even has the chutzpah to bring Laura home to introduce her to his parents. It’s not only an awkward scene, but it’s hard to believe that Laura would make it past the Wolkenbruch threshold.
Aside from trafficking in stereotypes and clichés, Motti remains static. Is he dedicated to his community? Is he religious or spiritual? What will he lose personally if he chooses to be with Laura? “Shtisel” is so successful because we always knew what was at risk for Kive. He has a complicated and compelling inner life beneath his ultra-Orthodox appearance. Motti, on the other hand, is a two-dimensional character, and so is most everyone he meets throughout the film.
Putting aside the egregious, original title of this film, there is still little to admire here. Some might argue the film has entertaining plot points, but it felt like an ersatz Philip Roth novel or a pathetic paean to “Annie Hall,” with no depth, substance, poignancy, humor or payoff.