Review: Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ is a frank and unflinching statement on religion and oppression
25.03.2020

Review: Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ is a frank and unflinching statement on religion and oppression

Words by Matt Maida

★★★1/2

A Jewish woman longs for a fresh start in a four-part limited series from Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski.

Played by Shira Haas, Esther (Esty) Shapiro is a Satmar Hasidic in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Stifled by her insular community, an unhappy marriage and profound feelings of exclusion, she flees for Berlin to forge a life of her own volition. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, Unorthodox delivers subdued drama with sturdy direction by Maria Schrader.

The series paints Shapiro’s Satmar community as patriarchal, controlling and beholden to rigid rules. One of the best examples of this is episode two’s dense opening scene: arranged to marry Yanky (Amit Rahav), Esty is coached about being a Satmar wife.

It’s a deflating demonstration of how women are ordered into oppression under the guise of “God’s wishes”, claiming a woman’s ultimate purpose is to be a wife, have children and be subservient to their husband. While the Jewish faith (and Satmar traditions, specifically) are integral to the show, we’re also reminded that this is far from the only part of society founded on the restriction of women.

As Esty navigates life in Berlin, flashbacks show the year leading up to her great escape. The strongest use of this structure is in episode three, where flashbacks focus on Esty being repeatedly forced to try for a baby with Yanky.

As the community piles blame and guilt onto her, framing it as her fault that she and Yanky have struggled to consummate, the flashbacks cleverly build-up to the episode’s final scene: Esty making a big decision for herself, nobody else.

A big part of Unorthodox is music. Shortly after arriving in Berlin, Esty sits in on an orchestra rehearsal. It’s a beautiful scene — Esty is moved to tears by the music, the memories it evokes and the fact that she’s made it here on her own, not with anybody forcing her and watching over her shoulder.

There’s a palpable sense of community amongst the musicians as they chat, tune their instruments and play their music, so when Esty decides she must join the orchestra, it’s easy to understand why.

One of the show’s highlights is the friendship Esty forms with the musicians. There are clear contrasts between Esty’s Satmar community and the friends she finds in Berlin: where the former decide for her based on traditions, rarely asking what she thinks, feels or wants, the musicians are kind, supportive, and truly listen to her. The show does well to highlight this, both through the actors’ performances to the patient editing.

However, there is a tension between Esty and Yael (Tamar Amit-Joseph), one of the musicians. Though the two characters have shared knowledge about Judaism, Yael is also flippant and careless with her words.

While Yael is never intentionally malicious, the pain she can bring Esty makes each of their interactions tense, like a strained exchange about Jewish lives lost in World War II.

The weight of WWII lingers over the entire series, serving as a sober reminder that its effects are still felt across the world. It’s also weaponised against Esty: one member of her former community tries to manipulate her into believing that her desire for independence disrespects the millions of Jewish people killed during WWII.

But Unorthodox sees through the cruelty there, and believes in Esty’s autonomy. The other characters aren’t treated as monsters (even in their harshest moments), but the show is rightly critical of their perpetuation of a system that oppresses women.

Unorthadox hits Netflix on Thursday March 26.