You know the corny joke that begins: A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar… In “Keeping the Faith,” a classic celebrating its 20th anniversary at the festival, it was the priest who walks into the bar. He’s there – alone – to brood about a love triangle between him, his best friend, who happens to be a rabbi, and a childhood female friend. Wait, what?
Ed Norton, the Catholic priest, is director and lead actor in this rom-com perfect for the upcoming Valentine’s Day (or a week later, Feb. 21 and 22 at the AJFF). Norton stars with Ben Stiller as the rabbi and Jenna Elfman as their love interest.
What follows the bar scene is a very modern, comedic look at the life of young clergy and their attempts to make faith relevant, not to mention a love affair with New York’s sights, sounds, and cultural and religious diversity.
In “Keeping the Faith,” you’ll learn about the inner workings of the clergy, the rituals that go along with their positions and the leadership that guides them. You’ll also feel the angst of the way-too-cool, self-appointed “God Squad” – complete with shades in one street walking scene – as they learn the ropes, struggle to gain a loyal following, and test their limits in their traditional religious settings, all while being held to a higher standard as the conduit between their respective congregations and the Almighty.
Watching the film from 2000 taking place in the city of my youth, I found the script very relatable. I especially enjoyed the pop culture of the time interspersed throughout the movie– for starters, the pay phone, and the bittersweet Manhattan skyline before 9/11.
The film also took some liberties with traditions. At least at my synagogue, the cantor doesn’t sing the very soulful “Kol Nidre” as congregants enter the high holiday service. Ok, we don’t have a cantor, but we have a Rabbi Lewis (Eli Wallach), Stiller’s mentor in the film.
If nothing else, Norton and Stiller made religion fun, at least in the fictional sense. I especially enjoyed the welcomed shaking up of old-world customs. Personally, I’d love to hear a gospel choir sing “Ein Keloheinu,” on occasion. Perhaps there are some lessons after 20 years for today’s clergy to still learn from “Keeping the Faith.”