Image: Rough Diamonds poster – Netflix
In the Israeli-Flemish Netflix series “Rough Diamonds,” a man returns to the ultra-Orthodox community in Antwerp after years of exile. A strong and authentic story.
For a community that has a reputation for being closed and introverted, ultra-Orthodox Judaism pops up remarkably often in movies and series. This does not always fall on good ground. Both the documentary “My Unorthodox Life,” the drama series “Unorthodox” and the comedy series “Shtisel” were criticized for painting a superficial, incomplete, sensational and caricatured picture of the community. Whether ‘Rough Diamonds’ can count on more approval is not yet clear. But it is notable that the creators do their best to paint a balanced picture of that mysterious and strictly regulated world.
The Israeli team behind the series, director Rotem Shamir and screenwriter Yuval Yefet, has a proven track record. They collaborated on “Fauda,” a political thriller about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In ‘Rough Diamonds,’ a co-production with Belgian production house De Mensen, they explore the Antwerp diamond trade, although they try to make it primarily a suspenseful family drama.
The main character is Noah Wolfson, played charismatically by Belgian actor Kevin Janssens. He has lived in London for years, but returns with his infant son Tommy to his Hasidic family to say goodbye to his brother Yanki, who took his own life.
Noah left at the time because he could not settle in that suffocating environment. From his oldest brother Eli (Robbie Cleiren), pater familias Ezra and the other men of the community, he does not immediately receive a very warm welcome. Mother Sarah and sister Adina, however, are happy to see him.
The longer Noah is in Antwerp, however, the more he understands that his family’s diamond business is in tight straits. A connection to the ruthless Albanian mafia, an ongoing police investigation and Noah’s own activities in his mother-in-law’s criminal gang tighten the thumbscrews even more.
If “Rough Diamonds” mirrors one narrative, it is “The Godfather. The series is a mix of family tragedies and crime. And it has a main character who wants to escape the environment of his youth but comes to the realization that it is part of his DNA.
There are worse examples to follow, and it would be unfair to call “Rough Diamonds” a lame knockoff. For that, the eight-part series goes to great lengths to portray the ultra-Orthodox world with credibility and even-handedness. Shamir and Yefet acknowledge the community’s limitations and often overly strict rules, but they equally underscore its qualities and assets. Moreover, the tasty mix of Flemish and Yiddish that the actors mouth sounds very natural.