A Price Above Rubies from 1998 stars Renée Zellweger as Sonia Horowitz, a Jewish woman who is stifled by her marriage and gives up everything to be free. It’s a history lesson in where the women’s movement came from and how it was viewed almost 20 years ago.
Julianna Margulies played a supporting role, with Kim Hunter, Edie Falco and Kathleen Chalfant in small parts. Glenn Fitzgerald is Mendel, Sonia’s husband. Christopher Eccleston is her brother-in-law – Rachel’s (Margulies) husband. Allen Payne plays Ramon, an artist. Shelton Dane plays Yossi, Sonia’s brother who died at age 10.
So many things about this film are anachronistic and paternalistic. Sonia burns with sexual energy while married to an man whose religiosity precludes any sexual satisfaction for the woman in the marriage. (Somehow having her brother-in-law rape her repeatedly was supposed to be the solution to this problem. Consent – what’s that? Yeah.)
Sonia was a gifted judge of the value of jewelry, a skill she learned from her father. Her brother-in-law (yeah) offers her work as a jewelry buyer. In order to do this, she leaves her child with her sister-in-law Rachel.
She discovers a piece of jewelry that is creative and beautiful. She traces it down to Ramon. Ramon works for a jeweler, but doesn’t make jewelry for him. Instead he makes sculpture and jewelry in his home. While at work, he doesn’t admit to Sonia that he is the talented artist she seeks.
The film uses magical realism to get Sonia liberated. A woman couldn’t achieve it on her own, could she? It would have to be some magical intervention. She talks regularly to her dead brother Yossi. And she has a wise woman/homeless lady apparition (Chalfant) who offers her advice and strength at the exact moments she needs it.
Her brother-in-law (yeah) tails her around the city. Sonia goes into the very Catholic, very Puerto Rican, home where Ramon lives with his mother. Sonia merely wants to represent Ramon to jewelry buyers around the city. The brother-in-law (yeah) assumes an affair. He reports back to the Jewish enforcers – his wife and the Rabbi.
Sonia’s baby is grabbed away by Rachel. Mendel throws her out of the house without listening to her story. She’s an outcast in her Jewish community.
With nowhere to go, she ends up at Ramon’s. Sonia and Roman end up in bed – a one night stand, but one in which Sonia finally gets some satisfaction.
They put red lipstick on Allen Payne. Guess brown lips were too scary for the moviegoing public in 1998.
Apparently that was enough banishment for the erring Sonia, because Mendel apologizes and tells her she can see the baby in the evenings if she wants. This counts as a happy ending for a woman who needs punishing for being independent but still needs to perform her motherly duties.
In spite of its flaws from the perspective of 2016, A Price Above Rubies is still a tale of female empowerment and liberation. If you think things have always been this good (even though they aren’t as good as they should be), a film like this reminds you how far we’ve come.
It was fun to see actors as they were nearly 20 years ago, especially Kim Hunter who died at age 79 in 2002. I remember her so well from films and TV from as far back as the 50s, especially A Streetcar Named Desire. Seeing a younger Kathleen Chalfant was a treat as well.
You can watch A Price Above Rubies on Amazon Video or Netflix.
Notice the tag line at the end of the trailer, “Freedom always comes with a price.” Translated into plain English, that means freedom for women comes at a price and men get to set that price.