'Quarrel': us vs. them, artfully done

March 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Put "The Quarrel" into that small category of movies that will not shut up. Like "My Dinner With Andre" and . . . er, nothing else, it's about two men whose lives are utterly consumed by language, who are most fully engaged when they are enmeshed in Drawn from a short story by Chaim Grade, the movie, which opens today at the Greenspring, is set in Montreal in 1948. The war is over and a few melancholy survivors of the Holocaust have at last drifted to harboring North American shores to attempt to begin life anew. One such is a writer, Chaim Kovler, who now works for the New York Daily Forward and has published a few novels. He's come up to Montreal to give a reading. He's a wordly, ironic fellow, a smoker and wearer of three-piece suits, who looks down his nose at the dark-garbbed, prayer-haunted, shawl-sheathed Orthodox Jews, like relics from some embarrassing medieval past, who scurry about on the eve of Rosh Hashana.

But, as he strolls through a beautiful Montreal park in the hour nearing twilight, one shambling figure looks slightly familiar.

"Hersh! Hersh Rasseyner?"

"Chaim Kovler!"

Two old friends, separated by 15 years and the near murder of a people, confront each other edgily in a Montreal park. It's only after the embrace that they remember: Oh yes, we're not talking to each other.

But of course they are. And in a flash, it's 15 years ago, the Yeshiva in Vilna, and the old quarrel re-emerges. Only now it's to be reinforced with a fresh decade-and-a-half's accumulation of genocide to be called into evidence. It's the issue that has and will divide immigrant communities of whatever hue and belief: assimilationism vs. purity. What do we give up to get along? Are we still us? Must we become them? If we stay us are we in danger? Or is there more danger in becoming them? What does God want?

The argument ranges all over the park, through rain and shine, and Chaim and Hersh try desperately to deny their characters and their passions in the interests of the sentiment of the occasion. But they are helpless; in seconds, the sparks begin to fly, and like the dogs and cats that secretly love each other, they have at it again.

This is strictly a three-man show. The three men are Saul Rubinek, who plays Hersh and R. H. Thomson who plays Chaim, each of whom is brilliant, but more importantly director Eli Cohen, who keeps the whole thing vivid and visual. It's always about talking men and living ideas, never about talking heads and dead symbols.

"The Quarrel"

Starring R. H. Thomson and Saul Rubinek.

Directed by Eli Cohen.

Released by RKO Pictures.

Unrated.

***

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