4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Remember seeing Peter Weir’s film, Witness (1985) starring Harrison Ford for this first time? This was when the world was able to see a dramatised glimpse into the secluded and mystifying world of the Amish. For better or worse, it was able to respectfully portray this relatively unknown religious community. Unorthodox provides a similar opportunity to see behind the curtain of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn, New York. 

Based loosely on the personal memoirs of Deborah Feldman, this Netflix mini-series delivers an intimate journey into her life in this closed society. The central character is a 19-year-old woman named Esty (Shira Haas). She is a young woman who has been betrothed to Yakov Shapiro (Amit Rahav) in an arranged marriage between their families. The couple tries to honour all of the traditions of their faith, striving to make their new life together work. Unfortunately, tensions rise between their families when the young couple is unable to consummate the marriage and have children. These difficulties lead to gossip spreading throughout the tight-knit neighbourhood and for Yanky to seek out a divorce.

Miraculously, Esty does become pregnant during these tense moments within their relationship. But before getting to celebrate with her husband, the conflict in the marriage Instead of celebrating with her family and husband, she decides to flee, looking for something more. This leads the young woman to take drastic measures by escaping to Berlin to be with her estranged mother. Upon arrival to Germany, Esty begins to acclimate to the culture. A freeing experience that allows her to dream of being a musician and part of the general public. This is a short-lived opportunity that is threatened when her husband and his cousin come looking for her. The two men hope to bring her back to Brooklyn and back within the religious sect.

What stands out about this mini-series is the non-linear storytelling of director Maria Schrader and the fascinating exposure of a relatively isolated people group. The disjointed manner of the story arch takes some getting used to, but does eventually compliment the overall viewing experience. It’s a narrative style that forces the audience to remain engaged in every scene. Even with the majority of the dialogue being in Yiddish or German, the compelling nature of the religious and biographical elements will draw the viewer along until the final moments. 

The majority of the cast are well-known Israeli actors, which provides authenticity to the overall experience. Shira Haas and Amit Rahav are outstanding in their portrayal of the young couple. They capture the devotion they experience within their faith and the struggles to discover their place in the modern world. Each situation they encounter in New York and Germany provides an innocent view from the eyes of those who are being exposed to the harsh realities of modern society. Sexual and familial tensions do lead to mature elements, but they prove to be necessary for the sake of addressing the measures each character takes. 

Anna Winger’s script is respectful of the isolated religious community while managing to show the importance of Esty’s escape. An extraordinary coming of age tale that shows the beauty and the flaws in this faith-based existence. It does not hold back on the confronting expectations of those who live within this community, while showing many of the joys of this lifestyle and the challenges of leaving it behind. 

Unorthodox is a mini-series that delivers a juxtaposition for all who engage with the story. By providing the intricate details of this community, this series unexpectedly offers a disarming authenticity to audiences. One that may leave many frustrated with many story elements left open in the end. A series worth engaging with for the sake of education and the enjoyment of a well-told biographical sketch. 

Reel Dialogue: What can we really know about courage? 

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The Apostle Paul

There is a multitude of themes to cover in this miniseries, marriage, religion, freedom, and gossip. Yet, a key component of Esty’s journey of self-discovery comes down to maintaining and a certain level of courage. After watching Maria Schrader’s interpretation of Deborah Feldman’s autobiographical journey, some may come away with the notion that her courage is a man-made concept. Understandably, viewers could see her choices as selfish. However, her devotion to her faith still was an integral part of her decision-making process. 

More importantly, it does open the discussion of the origin of human courage. A revolutionary thought could be that God has a plan for his creation to live courageously. The only stipulation is that we should live to his standard, not based on our own preconceived notions. Many see the Bible as being a book of limitations and regulations. Instead, it could be looked upon as an instruction book on getting the most out of life. Have you taken the time to read the instruction manual? 

Here are a few passages to consider in the exploration of courage: Jeremiah 29:11, Psalm 37:4, Psalm 90:12, Proverbs 27:1, Matthew 6:34, Philippians 4:13, John 10:10