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In Fading Gigolo, Turturro Accomplished What Many Jewish Directors Have Not
by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
IF I COULD SUGGEST a special Oscar category, it would be for a film director from outside the Jewish community who successfully makes movies appreciative of Jewish life and Jewish values. In such a category, the best picture would be John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. Turturro essentially succeeded at reinventing the Woody Allen genre with a humor that is respectful of Jewish values and of Orthodox Jews. While the film has its flaws and improbabilities, it is a very worthy, even noble effort.
Woody Allen himself was brought in to play seventyish Murray Schwartz, who must close his rare bookstore in which his fiftyish friend Fioravante (affectingly played by Turturro) works. Worried about making ends meet, Murray, who lives with a black woman (Tonya Pinkins) and her children, seeks a solution in his stylish dermatologist (Sharon Stone) who, though married, has asked Schwartz if he knows of someone who would indulge her and a female friend (Sofia Vergara) in a ménage a trois. Without a blink, Schwartz asks Fioravante to become a gigolo for these women for a hefty fee, with forty percent going to Murray, whose cultural pursuits have obviously not resulted in much of a moral code.
Fioravante quickly agrees to the plan after Murray assures him that, although no matinee idol, Fioravante is a “man’s man” who gets his hands dirty (at least in his other part-time job as a florist): “You’re an experienced lover,” Murray tells him. “Why shouldn’t you get paid for it?” Think of it, he adds, “as if you’re boosting their self-esteem.” Convinced by Murray’s pitch, Fioravante drinks a “l’khayim” to his Jewish friend and is catapulted into a new career — with Murray as pimp. (The title is used rather proudly by Murray.)
Fioravante is quite adept at his work. He arrives at each encounter with a customer-friendly gift of fresh flowers in hand. He comes across as empathic.
Meanwhile, one of the little ones in the household of “Uncle Moe,” as the children call Murray, complains of lice, and it just so happens that the delousing is done by a beautiful, widowed Hasidic rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), Avigayl (fetchingly portrayed by Vanessa Paradis). Making capital out of whatever yeshiva education he once had in his effort to impress her with his personal and Jewish credentials, Murray/Moe has no qualms about suggesting to this lonely widow that when something terrible happens, like the death of her husband, it is “good to reach out” to someone “beyond a rabbi.” Does Murray hope that this woman will be seduced into becoming a regular, paying client, or is he seeking to facilitate a break between her and her religious culture? Avigayl knows only (or only wants to know?) that she is seeing a therapist or healer — who, Murray lies to her assuringly, is “Sephardic.”
THE SCENES THAT FOLLOW yield both humor and vulgarity, but not too many one-liners from anyone but Moe. Woody Allen gets to deliver his standard lines about circumcision, Sabbath work, and the dietary laws, but they come across as shallow in the context of this film. The wittiest line comes, in fact, from Avigayl, when a handsome, streetwise neighborhood-watch officer, Dovi (a heartfelt performance by Liev Schreiber), who has loved her from afar for years and is now very protective towards her, tells her as she embarks on one of her Brooklyn-to-Manhattan jaunts to make sure to be home by dark. “Why?” she asks. “It’s not shabbes.”
Turturro here offers a richly cultural Jewish joke (with sexual overtones) of a quality not often found in screenplays or teleplays about Jews that are written by Jews. Turturro does not ridicule Hasidim with satire and slapstick, but seems to want to explore what is serious and authentic about them.
More than once Tarturro emphasizes that Murray cannot sit next to Avigayl in the livery car; he must sit with the driver. Turturro even seems somewhat shocked by his own character’s willingness to let Fioravante massage her naked back and to allow him to remove her shaytl (wig) and kiss her. That is as physical as Turturro allows their relationship to get. In between these two scenes, at their only other meeting, Avigayl breaks bread with the lovesick Fioravante at his apartment with a fish meal for which he has used new utensils (and maybe kashered the stove?). Can Turturro be suggesting that the dietary laws, through which Jews have traditionally separated their tables for what the Torah calls “holiness,” can be exploited to break barriers, but that Jewish rituals have a cumulative power to ensure that certain lines are not crossed? More than once, Turturro contrasts explicit sexual situations into which Fioravante jumps with the dignity and discipline of Hasidic life.
Turturro could have protected Avigayl even more, however, by bringing additional wit and character development to the massage, the meal and the kiss. And his manner of “protecting” Avigayl raises questions about the director’s intent. Does Tururro intend to convey an element of hypocrisy in Avigayl’s jaunts? For untold reasons, she is treated as royalty and given a special car. Is her husband part of the grand rebbe’s family? Has she found a way to taste freedom and still maintain status in her community, or is she acting to lessen her status so that she can return the affection of Dovi, who is painfully aware that, as he puts it, he is not of a rabbinishe (rabbinical) family? Whatever her motivations, including loneliness, Avigayl is using Fioravante, another gentle soul who is deep into exploitation because of not-so-gentle soul Murray. When she kisses him, she is being rather cruel.
GIVEN TURTURRO’S CONCERN about the dignity and integrity of the rabbi’s widow, his justification for her behavior is noteworthy: During that one massage, with her wedding ring still on her finger, Avigayl weeps, saying that no one has ever touched her — although they and her late husband had six children together. Late in the film, she reiterates that she has acted out of loneliness, but Turturro makes a parallel case that she is an intellectually and culturally curious person and that she wants to bring sensuality to her life within the boundaries of her life. She seeks out store windows, grand boulevards, and antiquarian books on Fioravante’s shelf. She is moved to praise Fioravante: “You bring magic to the lonely and you get paid for it.”
When Fioravante guesses that Avigayl has read some of the literature that she eyes on his shelves, she confesses that she had to give up her books before her wedding. “Men have never wanted women to read,” he says rather smugly — but Turturro has let it be known that Fioravante is not exactly recommending good books to his clients, and that his pimp brought some fine books home after the bookstore failed. Murray more than once notes that that attended yeshiva in his younger days. It becomes obvious that Murray acquired sufficient knowledge to pervert a Talmudic story when he wants to, though Avigayl is learned enough to rebut him.
An important detail in this movie is that Moe Schwartz befriended Fioravante after the latter, as a youth, tried to steal from his store. There is definitely a suggestion here that a morally ambiguous Jew can be beloved to others, even if hostile to and undermining of his own. Schwartz’s funniest line is uttered while he is being dragged to the synagogue to be interrogated by the rabbis: He asks if it is some Jewish holiday. This self-deprecatory smile-getter, which could have been in a number of Woody Allen movies elicits a deep, knowing laugh in the context of Murray’s behavior, which threatens the mores of more communities than one.
At the bet din, the tribunal of rabbis o which Murray is dragged by Dovi, the rabbis don’t come across as venerable. They moan and rant, completely flabbergasted by Murray’s actions, and can only shout out various sins like adultery and even incest, as if shocked that such things can occur. (Jewish sacred literature, beginning with the Bible and Talmud, has always been realistic about the human potential for depravity.) However inept the rabbis prove to be at striking fear into the hearts of sinners (without the help of strong-arm Dovi and friends), the movie makes clear that they stand for something that is dignified and that exudes sanctity.
Fading Gigolo suggests that despite the vulgarity that some Jews gleefully pursue, something very dignified and anti-vulgarian persists in Jewish life. It is apparent in Avigayl when she speaks before the rabbis: Despite her forays into forbidden zones, she has been steadfast. One gets the impression that she will be happy with the physical, protective and understanding Dovi, and remain in a community that achieves daily something of what George Panichas called “the reverent discipline.”
It is Turturro’s accomplishment to have reshaped a genre of Jewish-themed filmmaking to bring dignity and compassion to a depiction of Orthodox Jews.
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.