If you can watch Praying With Lior without shedding a tear, it’s time for an emotional checkup. It needn’t be a tear of sorrow, mind you. This candid documentary about the Bar Mitzvah of a Philadelphia teen with Down syndrome is just as likely to induce joyful tears as trigger sad weeping. And even though it offers a glowing portrait of organized religion in action, belief in God or adherence to the tenets of a particular denomination are not prerequisites for being moved. The uplifting effect of Ilana Trachtman’s film stems from multiple factors detachable from faith. It’s a fascinating study of a disabled person’s influence on a community; an inspirational tribute to those who deal with special-needs children and to the bond between a mother and her child; a trenchant look at family dynamics; and an example of the utility of music therapy and everyday rituals.
That said, interpreting Lior Liebling’s profound coming-of-age story through a religious prism is inevitable; it’s no wonder many consider him a “spiritual genius.” The urge to pray (in Hebrew, “daven”) with Lior is about the need to acknowledge blessings, whether or not one believes God as their source. Diehard atheists must admit the film raises fundamental questions about the meaning of human existence and points toward the ineffable, toward where others find the divine.
The son of two rabbis, Lior is highly functional and, like many with Down syndrome, extremely extroverted and affectionate. He has a knack for praying and singing inherited from his mother, who succumbed to breast cancer in 1997. We see Rabbi Devora Bartnoff in home movies singing to young Lior; passages from an article and diary entries she wrote about him are read in voiceover. There is also revealing testimony from Lior’s father Mordecai, stepmother, two older siblings and his younger sister, who can’t hide her annoyance and jealousy regarding the attention being heaped on her brother. Everyone has something insightful to say about Lior.
Trachtman also interviews him, but it’s Lior in action—at home, at school, playing baseball and singing in a prayer group at his synagogue—that speaks the loudest. Shot over the three years, the carefully constructed film engenders suspense as Lior’s 2004 Bar Mitzvah approaches. When Trachtman revisits him two years after the milestone event, he’s a noticeably more mature 15-year-old.
While there’s no objective way of measuring whether Lior has a special connection to God, his mostly positive effect on others is obvious. Mordecai worries that people push Lior too hard, project onto him and have inflated expectations of his abilities—concerns that apply to the movie itself. Trachtman doesn’t proselytize, yet she’s keen on teasing out spiritual ramifications, evidenced by the leading questions she asks of Lior during their one-on-one interviews.
In the end, however, Mordecai’s fear that his son is destined to be sad and lonely overpowers any whiff of exploitation. After all the uplift, will it be downhill from here on out for Lior? Each tear the viewer sheds is mixed with joy and sorrow, symbolizing the mysterious complexity of one seemingly simple human being. Praying With Lior bores deep into your soul. At the very least, it makes you believe you have one, even if it may not be as luminous as Lior’s. That’s a pretty good definition of a religious experience.
Distributor: First Run
Director/Producer: Ilana Trachtman
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: February 1, 2008 NY, March 28 LA