“Everyone calls me a writer. But writers write about people, and all I can write about is bread,” muses the eponymous protagonist of “Esau,” director Pavel Lungin’s new film offering a modern spin on the famous biblical brothers.
The movie, based on a novel of the same name by Israeli author Meir Shalev, is narrated by Lior Ashkenazi’s Esau, a food writer. He returns home to his family’s Israeli village from his residence abroad when he hears that his elderly father, Abraham, played by Harvey Keitel, is deteriorating. He has not been back for decades, and his brother, Jacob, played by Mark Ivanir, took over the family bakery.
He also married the woman they both love, Leah, played in her younger years by Shira Haas. Jacob, bitter at his brother’s abandonment, tells Esau to stay away, but a call he believes to be from Leah lures him back to the village.
It’s a family legacy that treats linear time as a suggestion rather than a rule. The camera hops from the brothers’ Russian grandfather arriving in Israel to their birth, to the boys’ youth, to the present day, to another moment in the past about their parents’ courtship at the very end of the film. The ancient facades and dirt roads of the village appear untouched by time, and the muted colors of the clothing and costumes never look quite modern, even in the present day.
The film’s main success is its portrayal of the relationship between art and life. The fact that all screenplays are created by writers means there are too many films about writers — starry-eyed new hires at fashion magazines, grizzled crime reporters, troubled novelists — but “Esau” actually wields it’s characters’ occupation to great purpose in building a story.
The bulk of the narration consists of Esau finally pivoting from bread and attempting to write about people by reflecting on why he left home. When his brother discovers the typewritten pages, he is furious, both at the information he finds and his assumption that his brother is trying to make money off his experiences.
Jacob is also enraged that his daughter, a photographer, is taking candid photos of him for her photography exhibition. He loses patience when she sneaks up on him in the bathroom (his reaction is portrayed as harsh, but it’s pretty reasonable not to want someone — let alone your own daughter — barging in while you’re showering to take naked photos of you). He accosts both of them for trying to profit off his pain.
“You’ll take it, and you’ll use it, and you’ll sell it,” he spits. “Couple of rats, both of you.”
The exchange raises valid questions about the ethics of creating art based on your own life, especially family strife.
The great weakness of the story is its poorly developed female characters. Anyone familiar with the brothers’ original story can recognize how Leah is objectified. In the Torah, Esau trades Jacob his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. In this film, he trades it for a glance of Leah’s retreating form through the eyeglasses he is forced to share with his brother due to Abraham’s stinginess.
As an adult, Leah withers away to a shadow in the wake of her son’s death, refusing to eat, speak or bathe. She is a specter hanging over Esau’s visit and a catalyst for a major fight, but she does basically nothing.
Leah is a symbol of the brother’s rivalry, an obstacle in their relationship, rather than her own person. Haas, whose star performance in Netflix’s “Unorthodox” established her as one of the most talented Jewish actors of her generation, clearly did her best to portray Leah’s childhood vibrancy, but even she could not overcome such a badly conceived role.
The twins’ mother, Yulia Peresild’s Sara, is more interesting, but she also finds herself shrunken before a man taking up too much space. Abraham regularly berates her and calls her a goy, a reference to the conversion of her Russian father and her fondness for Russian folk music. There is a scene of reconciliation that is meant to be sweet, but her husband does little to atone for his emotional abuse.
In the end, Esau will remain with audiences for the questions it poses rather than the answers it provides.
Is there a morally correct way to write about people who have hurt you, and who you have hurt in turn? Can you write, or photograph or paint your own experiences if they are shaped by people who want to be left out of your story? And if you can’t, are you simply left writing about bread?