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To hear the review:
Praying With Lior is the story of a young boy approaching his Bar Mitzvah. It’s a documentary by Ilana Trachtman about Lior Liebling, a young Jewish boy with Down syndrome. I will admit, straightaway, that I am clearly not the audience for a film such as this one. I would consider myself to be a fervent atheist, and although organized religion does indeed interest me – the stories behind it and the tradition and where it comes from – this movie seems to be made almost exclusively for those of the Jewish faith.
The cover of the DVD box, out March 24th from First Run Features, suggests that the film is about whether Lior, or anyone with Down syndrome, can be a “spiritual genius”. I didn’t get that from the movie. There were brief references to Lior’s “closeness to God”, and one or two people comment on his devotion to the Jewish faith and seem to imbue him with a religious significance. But this is a very small part of the movie, and really the focus is more on Lior himself. The catalyst for the documentary was an article written in the local paper about Lior by his mother, a rabbi. Her article talked about Lior and his closeness to God, and his impact on those around him.
This is where the film is interesting. Lior is a charming kid and seems to be genuinely happy. His mother died when he was six years old, and he desperately wants her to come back. This sets up a truly heartbreaking scene at his mother’s grave site, but at the same time we can never know how much of his world Lior truly understands. The interviews with Lior, while charming, quickly become fruitless because he doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a while in the film, the interviews with the boy felt to me like they were thrown in to reinforce the fact that he has special needs. This isn’t something I was likely to forget, but I didn’t need to see it that often. I would rather watch Lior interact with his family.
His family is terrific. His older brother is protective of Lior and dotes on him, although the burden can sometimes be overwhelming. His father, also a rabbi, is a sensible, kind man who doesn’t give Lior any added religious significance. There are a few charming scenes where Lior and his dad go over his speech for the upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Most people are reasonable about Lior’s religious “significance”. They suggest that had he been born in a Christian household, he would love to sing Christian hymns and chant Christian prayers. The fact that he prays so often, so loudly and so powerfully is merely the result of his circumstance.
Lior grew up in a house that was heavy into the prayers. A house where every time he prayed, he would be praised. And he likes the structure and the chanting style of the prayers. That’s it. The other kids in his class are pretty perceptive. They let Lior lead the prayer service (or, as they call it, davening), and they are not mean-spirited toward him. All of this is charming, and sweet, but it goes on far too long. As the movie comes to an end, we see Lior participating in his Bar Mitzvah, an event that has a lot of significance for Jewish people and for Lior’s family. His own comprehension of the event can’t be ascertained, but it is another sweet moment.
However, I just couldn’t get into the movie. There was just too much of it. Lior is charming, his family is sweet, the religious circle around him is supportive. But none of it is interesting enough to sustain a documentary for an hour and a half. There is something interesting in the movie for me, but it is something very small. Something that perhaps you would see as a ten-minute human interest piece on the evening news, or as an article in the local paper. As a feature-length movie, it just doesn’t work. Praying With Lior is available from First Run Features here: