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Driven and delicate after a strictly religious upbringing, 19-year-old Esty is determined to forge a new path in Unorthodox.
Unorthodox, a TV mini-series produced by Real Film Berlin and Studio Airlift, was distributed and released by Netflix earlier this year. Four episodes fly by as viewers are given an inside look at a Hasidic community and the influence it has over those born into it.
The series is loosely based on the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, who left the Satmar movement, a Hasidic community in New York City. Unorthodox is presented in English, Yiddish and German, and characters switch between the languages depending on the location and scene.
Written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also acted as producer), and directed by Maria Schrader, Unorthodox is a rare example of how the female lens can reveal the truth behind horrors many women face when thrust into circumstances they have little to no sway over.
Unorthodox centers around Esty, a new bride raised in New York who takes charge of her path as she runs away to Berlin, Germany. The show was filmed in Berlin, where Esty initially walks around with a frail, unsure demeanor.
The series is presented with a nonlinear narrative, or not in chronological order, so in order to avoid spoilers I am hesitant to give too much away. As the characters navigate the situations, viewers are shown flashbacks to give context to the present storyline.
Shira Haas stars as Esther (Esty) Shapiro, and uses her tiny frame and large eyes to brilliantly convey the kind of trauma and pressure inflicted upon her by family and their theocratic community. She marries Yanky Shapiro (played masterfully by Amit Rahav), who demands subservience and loyalty from Esty despite an inability to look her in the eye for the majority of the show.
Unorthodox is shot with purpose, though the cinematography feels reserved so the focus can remain on the performances given by the actors along with the dialogue and plot development. Music is a mix of diegetic and non-diegetic, and it is used as a tool to convey meaningful exchanges and dramatic intentions.
The majority of Unorthodox is quiet, drawing the viewer in as we are given a look into a world many people are not privy to. It is a process that reveals a patriarchal system inherent in many cultural and religious communities, one that many women may find familiar depending on their upbringing.
As theaters remain closed and drive-ins make a comeback, limited mini-series like Unorthodox give viewers a more fleshed-out story with developed characters and clear motivation as well as the incentive to stay home and remain socially distant. Each episode moves quickly despite the cool and soft tone, and the total run time for all four episodes is 3 hours and 33 minutes – great for a long binge if you’re into that.
I felt Unorthodox to be compelling and evocative of that greater thing many people yearn for – true control over one’s destiny. As Esty moves we move with her, and find a voice even we may be surprised to hear.
US Certification: TV-MA (Designed for Mature Audiences – includes mild to moderate amounts of nudity, sex and profanity)
Currently available to watch/stream on Netflix
Dir. by Maria Schrader
Written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, based on the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman