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D: Yoav Paz, Doron Paz / 95m

Cast: Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Kirill Cernyakov, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravich, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Mariya Khomutova, Veronika Shostak, Konstantin Anikienko

Lithuania, 1763. In a small isolated village made up of an entirely Jewish community, Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) and Benjamin (Golan), are a couple who are struggling to have a second child following the death of their first born, Joseph, seven years before. Their marriage seems mired in the expectations of the village elders, one of whom suggests Benjamin should renounce Hanna and take another wife. However, these considerations take a backseat with the arrival of Vladimir (Tritenko). Vladimir has come from a nearby, plague-ravaged village and his eldest daughter is dying, while no one in Hanna’s community is affected. Threatening to kill everyone and burn their village to the ground unless his daughter is saved, the task is taken up by the village’s healer, Perla (Brynie Furstenberg). But Hanna bristles under Vladimir’s threats, and challenges the elders to create a Golem, an ancient creature out of Jewish myth that could defend them. When they refuse, Hanna takes matters into her own hands, and brings the creature to life herself. What she doesn’t expect is the form the Golem takes: that of a young boy who reminds her too much of her lost son…

Taking some of its inspiration from The Witch (2015), the latest outing from the Paz brothers – fans of Jeruzalem (2015) will be pleased to know there’s a sequel in the works – is a sterling effort that does its best to explore the myth of the Golem, while placing the creature within a convincing setting. Though it doesn’t explain why Jewish lore would have such an acknowledged demon at its (potential) disposal, Ariel Cohen’s screenplay does highlight the circumstances under which it might be called upon, and then mixes those circumstances with the grief and sadness felt by Hanna over the death of her son. Though Hanna does come across as something of a modern day heroine, and her challenges to the orthodoxy of her community go unpunished, her motives are predominantly maternal; she’s being protective, albeit in a way that may prove more dangerous to the community than Vladimir’s murderous intentions. Her motives devolve with the Golem’s arrival, and the bond they share reawakens the feelings she had when Joseph was alive. And through all of this, there’s a palpable sense of threat from the Golem, its blank stare hiding much darker intentions than those it has been brought to life for.

Hanna’s maternal instincts inevitably lead to tragedy, and thanks to a first-rate performance from Hani Furstenberg, there’s an emotive undercurrent to events that lifts the material and makes it more than just a period horror movie with a generous sampling of gore effects. The Paz brothers also know when to focus on character over action, and the opening scenes establish both the sense of a tight-knit community, and a number of the stories that exist within that community, from the neighbouring widow who may be the second wife Benjamin needs, to Hanna’s sister who is on the verge of getting married. Vladimir’s arrival allows the movie to add a layer of historical persecution to the mix (his threats amount to a promise of a pogrom), and to highlight the elders’ belief in the power of prayer, but without forgetting that sometimes violence has to be met with violence. That these elements are present is a tribute to the density and complexity of Cohen’s screenplay, and the Paz brothers’ approach to the material, making the movie as a whole more involving and more effective as a result. With bleak, shadowy cinematography by Rotem Yaron, and  a pervading sense of menace throughout, this is necessarily grim stuff, and all the better for it.

Rating: 8/10 – it’s not often that a horror movie takes the time to explore the nature of evil, but it’s one of many surprises that The Golem has to offer, along with a lead female character who drives the story forward, and an ending that is both poignant and bittersweet; though there are moments where the dialogue sounds altogether too modern, and Hanna’s actions appear to be in defiance of historical accuracy, this is still an impressive outing from the Paz brothers, and one that augurs well for their future projects.