“Let me tell you a story,” beckons the voice of narrator Alan Rosenberg (TV’s “Harry’s Law”), reading aloud from one of Jewish author Shalom Aleichem’s many books. And that is precisely what “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” sets out to do — to figure out how to tell a story, or rather how a story gets told and interpreted by countless generations. However, the movie is limited in its documentary form and cannot fully plunge into Aleichem’s mind.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

At the Michigan
Riverside Films

As the movie follows Aleichem’s entire life, director Joseph Dorman (“The Endurance”) is careful to include context and background information that make the plotline more compelling. Indeed, some of the most interesting pieces are descriptions of life in the Jewish communities in Russia before the start of the pogroms. Eventually, a portrait emerges of Aleichem as a man who worked on building the Jewish community through the dialectical language of Yiddish at a time when the old way of life was falling apart. Aleichem is best known for his creation of the character Tevye and the story on which the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is based.

Though the film offers a look into a relatively unknown bit of history and literature, it’s more like a movie to watch for class than one to see in a theater. For all the talk about Alechiem’s wit and warmth, the film itself is not fun. It consists mostly of black-and-white photos of people, mostly with unspecified identities. They all have the same long beards and move across the screen continuously in a Ken Burns style.

While “Laughing in the Darkness” has an extremely well-thought-out plot and base of research, perhaps it carries on a bit too much. The film explores the impact of Aleichem’s work after his death, making it seem drawn out though it’s not a particularly long movie. When the film only deals with his work, it’s difficult to follow and the narrative loses its human point of interest. At one point, the film turns to talk about Zionism and the dismissal of Aleichem’s stories in Israel because they were written in Yiddish, not the nation’s elite language of Hebrew. This fact is intriguing, but it’s treated as a side note and it doesn’t follow the film’s general direction.

The film is composed of lots of narration and interviews with prestigious professors and scholars: These are people who love his work and have devoted a lot of time to studying him, but their enthusiasm doesn’t fully carry over to the audience. Alechiem’s work is relevant today — he is said to have written the first story with themes that would play out in the Holocaust, and much of his work deals with the displacement of Jews and the effects of the modern world on tradition. His own story and the stories he tells are remarkable and the film is worth seeing for that reason alone, but it’s not cinematically thrilling. Aleichem stays stuck in the two-dimensional frame of his photograph and does not emerge as the lovable man whose funeral was attended by 200,000.

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