At the beginning of “Thy Father’s Chair“, the new documentary from Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora, we see men putting on protective body coverings in preparation for a hazardous situation. Like a scene from a sci-fi film, they seem to be gearing up for a dangerous mission into unknown territory. What awaits them may not be aliens or a mysterious virus, but the reality depicted is no less disturbing.
“Thy Father’s Chair” is a documentary centered on a pair of Orthodox Jewish twins named Abraham and Shraga. They live together alone in a Brooklyn home inherited from their deceased parents. But though they are well into middle age, they haven’t fully moved on, barely leaving the house out of a sense of piety. And over the years, the brothers have become extreme hoarders, refusing to throw away anything, including discarded trash from the street and defunct technology. As their home becomes increasingly unsanitary, the neighbors have reached their breaking point. One day, their upstairs tenant forces them to hire a cleaning company, thereby opening the doors to a decaying environment that needs to be seen to be believed.
Indeed, a “fly on the wall” is an apt description for the experience of witnessing this bedbug and cockroach-infested nightmare. And through conversations between the brothers, the neighbors, and the cleaners, we slowly learn how the brothers got to this point. The directors’ interference is minimal, however, relying on the precious few moments of insight the brothers are willing to share. The large majority of the film instead involves endless bargaining between the brothers and the cleaners to keep their “prized possessions.”
With its vérité approach and similar depiction of squalor (including a number of resident cats), “They Father’s Chair” is a cinematic cousin to “Grey Gardens”. But this film lacks a crucial element that made the latter such a landmark documentary – involving subjects. Unfortunately, Abraham and Shraga are nowhere near as forthcoming about their lives and family background. In fact, it’s unclear whether they were even willing to have their lives documented, especially considering their usual hermit-like seclusion.
Ultimately, “Thy Father’s Chair” shows the limitations of the lauded cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking. With few directorial touches other than dividing the film into chapters for no apparent reason, there is little evidence of any deeper engagement with the subjects and the obvious religious themes. The film’s cautionary power, therefore, rests precariously on the sheer horror of its setting. It’s no spoiler to reveal that the film culminates with the house finally being cleaned. Thankfully, it only took 74 minutes to get there. Rarely has a film felt so literally like a chore to watch.
“Thy Father’s Chair” opens in select theaters October 13.