SIDNEY Lumet is the quintessential New York filmmaker. Since his movie-directing debut with "12 Angry Men" in 1957, he has turned out a whopping 38 features, and no fewer than 27 of them have taken place in or about Manhattan - from early efforts like "A View From the Bridge" and "The Pawnbroker" to recent ventures like "Family Business" and "Q & A."
Mr. Lumet's commitment to New York, as both a setting and a subject, has made him something of an expert on the place. But it also presents a challenge: How to keep finding new perspectives on the city, so the virtue of specialization won't turn into the sin of repetition?
One solution to this problem is to seek out little-visited neighborhoods and subcultures that haven't been treated in mainstream movies before. Lumet's new thriller, "A Stranger Among Us," does exactly this.
The story unfolds in a Brooklyn community of Hasidic Jews, seen through the eyes of a quizzical outsider whose ignorance of Hasidic life eventually gives way to understanding and admiration. The outsider is Emily Eden, a New York police detective. The murder of a Jewish diamond dealer leads her to the Hasidic community, where she goes undercover, passing herself off as a Jewish woman returning to the fold after a period of backsliding. She not only solves the crime but also falls in love with a young Has idic man, leading to the sort of cross-cultural romantic dilemma that countless other movies have explored in countless different settings. The ending, needless to say, is bittersweet.
"A Stranger Among Us" drew many negative reactions when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival a couple of months ago. This is partly because the story doesn't make much sense: How could Emily go undercover in the Hasidic community, for example, when she's already paid an open visit there, showing her face to plenty of people? And it's partly because of Melanie Griffith, who never gets a handle on the complexities (and contradictions) of her rather peculiar role. I agree that the movie has plenty of
problems in these areas.
I also think it does a superficial job of depicting the Hasidic community. Lumet defended this aspect of the picture when I discussed it with him in Cannes, pointing out that a police thriller can't also be a thoroughgoing documentary on the neighborhood where it takes place. Still, the film actually raises more questions than it answers - emphasizing Hasidic reverence toward women, for instance, yet showing much behavior that seems to point in the opposite direction. A patronizing attitude even infiltra tes the movie's publicity material, with its talk about a "modest" and "simpler" culture that's presumably not as advanced as Emily's own.
Yet, despite all these problems, I found myself liking "A Stranger Among Us" at many points along its admittedly bumpy road. For one thing, it's a great-looking picture, photographed in glowing tones by Andrzej Bartkowiak, a regular collaborator on Lumet's films.
More important, it's about a subject that too few movies deal with nowadays: a close-knit community where people care about each other, about the welfare of their friends and families, and about the moral and spiritual quality of everyday life.
In an era when most movie characters try desperately to seem as hip and trendy as their audiences want to be, Lumet has chosen to celebrate a culture that's proud to live by principles all its own, no matter what the Emilys - or the moviegoers - of the world may think.
"A Stranger Among Us" may not work very well as a suspense thriller or a sociological study. But as a visit with characters who actually embody the "family values" that politicians have turned into a meaningless phrase, it's a refreshing and welcome change of pace.
Robert J. Avrech wrote the screenplay. The cast includes Eric Thal as Ariel, the heroine's romantic interest; Jake Weber as Yaakov, his closest friend; Tracy Pollan as Yaakov's fiancee; John Pankow as Emily's partner; Jamey Sheridan as her boyfriend; and Lee Richardson as a revered rabbi. The picture was shot in New York City, although locations do not include the Brooklyn area where the story takes place, which is impersonated by a more commonplace Queens neighborhood and by studio sets. The rating is P G-13.