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Sundance 2010: 'Holy Rollers,' a Jewish underworld, by way of Joseph Smith

January 27, 2010 |  7:00 am

Among the many questions one might have upon meeting "Holy Rollers" screenwriter Antonio Macia is how a devout Mormon went about writing a movie featuring ultra-Orthodox Jews. In Brooklyn. Selling drugs.

Rol "I just tried to find out as much as I can, what they did on holidays and what they did on Shabbos," Macia told 24 Frames after the film's premiere Monday at the Sundance festival. Macia, who came to Mormonism on his own as an adult, pronounces "Shabb-os" with a flat "a," like the one in "taboo."  Although there are a number of such lexical and cultural details about the ultra-Orthodox community that the movie gets a little wrong, Macia and director Kevin Asch have by and large created a convincing world where loyalty duels with ambition, theological dogma with secular freedom.

In the film, Jesse Eisenberg  plays a studious ingenue drawn into becoming an operator in a transatlantic Ecstasy-smuggling cartel by Justin Bartha's character, an older, more experienced truant, in the process alienating his family. Asch's movie spins a story so unusual it borders on the implausible, though it is loosely inspired by a true story of an ultra-Orthodox smuggling ring active in the late 1990s.

The next day we have a lunch interview with  several cast members and director Asch -- a secular Jew raised in the upscale New York suburb of Great Neck, Long Island, and thus closer, if only slightly, to the storyline than Macia. Asch says he thinks "Holy Rollers" transcends place or demographics. "It could be a kid in Oklahoma doing meth," he says. "It could be anything, anywhere. We just wanted to show what it was like to be in this insular community and get caught up in something that's attractive because it's so different."  It's this tightly bordered subculture, Asch said, that made a devout Mormon the perfect screenwriter.

Or as costar Ari Graynor says, the film is not so much about the drug wars or even religious affiliation as it is "all about family."

"Holy Rollers" is just one of a slew of dramas playing in Park City this year, but -- with its unique premise,  guerrilla execution (lots of dark lighting and close-ups, in part because of the lower budget and accelerated shooting schedule) and the fact that it somehow got made despite few of the pre-sold elements preferred by financiers -- it embodies the current spirit of the festival. Even after Eisenberg and Bartha signed on, the film went another year and a half in limbo as Asch and producer Danny Abeckaser (who also has a supporting role in the film) found, lost and found again sources of financing.

Along the way, the filmmakers sheared the budget and, maybe more importantly, cut out many of the larger drug- and crime-movie tropes that would have made it a more commercial, and perhaps not as effective, picture. "I felt if we kept in a lot of those things, we would have wasted the opportunity to make a character drama," Asch says.

Perhaps by defying so many conventions, the movie has achieved the ultimate in Sundance cachet -- a thousand wags riffing. Around Park City, the movie has prompted the film-festival equivalent of a YouTube mash-up, as film-goers generate their own alternative titles -- "Jew Jack City" and, since it focuses on an innocent slowly corrupted to become leader of an underworld gang, "City of Hashem" -- as well as high-concept comparisons (''Requiem for a Dream" meets "Yentl"). Even in a post-"Serious Man" world, you've rarely seen Jews in this light.

Many of the filmmakers and actors are themselves Jewish and say they had experiences that prompted their involvement. "I lived above a Hasidic family and they had a wayward son, and I always fantasized about what's going on in that house," says Bartha, who describes himself as a secular Jew. 

If an actor musing on his neighbors isn't enough to catch your attention, think of Eisenberg -- last seen falling for Kristen Stewart in a 1980s amusement park in "Adventureland"-- and Bartha -- the bachelor who goes missing in Vegas in "The Hangover" -- together wandering the streets of Brooklyn, seeking out men in black hats and beards.

"A lot of people would sit down and talk to us," Bartha says. "You just could never tell them you're making a movie."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Jesse Eisenberg in "Holy Rollers." Credit: Sundance Film Festival