The structure of A Cantor’s Tale is unremarkably typical but it gets the job done: archival materials are interspersed with more recently recorded interviews so as to paint a to-the-point portrait of the figures and topics in question (in this case, the history and continued importance of Jewish hazzanut—the musical performance of sacred prayer—as remembered and carried on by professional cantor Jack Mendelson). Thankfully, it also eschews the superficial glaze adopted by more recent crowd-pleasers of the genre, aiming to probe beyond the immediate surface of its subject matter. Too bad, then, that it only goes halfway, for the material that is sufficiently examined is both substantive and engaging. Growing up in post-WWII Brooklyn, where many Jews relocated after the Holocaust, Jack floundered in academia but excelled in his cantorial studies, now hoping to carry on the tradition for future generations, long past its heyday. A Cantor’s Tale effectively portrays this practice as a deeply spiritual marriage of religious commitment and artistic perseverance, the strain to master the form largely a reflection of one’s internal grappling with faith. Yet the film also comes up short in providing this custom with enough of a context so as to truly understand its importance to the Jewish culture, too often focusing on interesting but less illuminating details of Jack’s personal life when it could instead take the overall examination to the next level of complexity. A discussion on the controversy that has arisen over female cantors—a development that stands in opposition to rigid traditionalism—goes so unexamined as to feel like a mere afterthought, and for as much as is said about how the art form was affected by the horrors endured during the Holocaust, remarkably little light is shed on these panging undercurrents. A Cantor’s Tale is entrancing when its gaze remains upon those in practice (even if you don’t understand a word, the recitations are quite beautiful), but its self-imposed limitation to the story of but one man is ultimately a disservice to the very traditions he aims to uphold.
- Ergo Media
- 95 min
- Erik Greenberg Anjou
- Jack Mendelson
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