In a bizarre, almost meta- confluence of perfect timing, disgraced fraudster financier Bernie Madoff died in prison last week, just as Alicia Jo Rabins’s brilliant, rock musical film “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” began making the rounds of film festivals, with various online screenings, on its way toward a broader theatrical release in 20222.
The fortunate-while-unfortunate (for Madoff) coincidence of the timing of Rabins’s film and the title character’s death, which indeed may have elicited some mourning prayers – including the Kaddish – in the far corners of New York City and Florida is just all of a piece with Rabins’s mystical, almost magically realistic film-within-a-film (within a film). The movie is framed as a fictional documentary nested within the reality of Rabins’s creative process, which almost accidentally found her face-to-face, figuratively speaking, with Madoff in 2011, just as the proportions of his colossal fraud – a classic Ponzi scheme that earned fictitious profits of up to $65 billion for dozens of duped individual and organizational investors who wound up with nothing or worse – were becoming public knowledge.
As the film recounts in scenes that re-create and offer a wonderful window into Rabins’s creative process (and, on a larger plane, the creative process, or how art is made), Rabins grew obsessed with Madoff, whose kind eyes reminded her of her father’s. She did her own sleuthing, tracking down people who knew or worked with him in varying capacities, to understand the many mysteries surrounding the story, which to Rabins was as much about Madoff’s victims as it was about their perpetrator. She herself has written, “Madoff is not the subject of this film; instead, he’s a cipher at its center. The piece is really a detective story about the human heart.” In most instances, Rabins plays all the major characters – and kudos to the makeup, hair, and wardrobe artists who transform this Portland-based bohemian variously into a credit risk analyst, an FBI agent, a hefty old man, and a suburban housewife.
The multitalented Rabins, who originally toured live with a performance piece of the same title, explores characters and motivations in song (Rabins is probably best known as a singer-songwriter for her Girls in Trouble project, which gives voice in song to the many overlooked women of Jewish scripture). On some level, the movie has become a rock musical (in another bizarre coincidence, directed by a filmmaker named Alicia J. Rose; the two had never before met), and a perfectly pitched one at that, with one foot in Broadway and the other in klezmer (in addition to playing guitar, Rabins is an accomplished violinist with a resume that includes a stint with the New York City-based Yiddish-klezmer-punk band Golem). I don’t generally like musicals – Broadway, rock, or otherwise – but the set pieces that emerge out of the “action” in the film are so carefully wrapped into the greater whole that it all – the dizzying array of forms, including animated sequences (big shout out to Zak Margolis), narration, and even a synchronized swimming routine – coheres as one, serving to propel the story.
And what exactly is that story? Well, it’s nothing less than another search for the meaning of life, this one dusted with Talmudic and Kabbalistic wisdom (Rabins has put in her time studying in yeshivas and in other academies of Jewish learning) alongside science and math (both of which one finds in the Talmud and Kabbalah anyway). Like Laurie Anderson before her, an obvious influence on her work (they’re both singer-violinists who make free use of electronics), Rabins tempers her deep wellsprings of learning and devotion with a Buddhist-derived equanimity, a mischievous sense of humor, and a skillful aptitude for song and dance.
“I finally understood that confronting Bernie was confronting myself,” says Rabins in the film. Fortunately for the viewer, Rabins is at least as fascinating a character as Bernie Madoff, perhaps even more so — one with the insights of a sage and the toolbox of a gifted 21st-century multimedia artist.
Stream “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” next weekend (4/24-25) for $10 @ Ashland Independent Film Festival
Read another take on “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The Atlantic.