Kosher Movies: Unfinished Song

A friend of mine recently redid his wills in Israel. He told me he did not want to leave a mess when he died. He did not want his wife or children to be in a state of confusion. Moreover, he told me that he was concerned that some of his children did not get along with one another and he wanted to give an equal share of his estate to each child so that none would feel more privileged than the other or in a more financially advantageous position than the other. In general, he was concerned about leaving a legacy of shalom, of peace in the family. Unfinished Song is about the last days of Marion Harris, a terminally ill woman who wants very much to leave her husband and son a legacy of peace, of reconciliation with one another after many years of misunderstanding and bickering.

Arthur Harris, Marion’s spouse, is a faithful husband but misanthropic in character. Although he dearly loves his wife, his relationship with his son is terrible. He rarely speaks to him; and when he does, it is with a critical tone in spite of his having a lovely and spirited granddaughter with whom he enjoys spending time.

Things change for Arthur when Marion asks him to join her at a local seniors’ choir group which is preparing for a regional singing competition. He repeatedly refuses, regarding the people who do participate as misfits who have nothing better to do with their time. But then Marion dies and Arthur is left alone with his grief. For a while, the solitude is helpful to him as he sorts out his feelings and tries to accommodate himself to his new life. Slowly, he begins to rethink the past, to recognize his shortcomings as a father, and to attempt to reconstruct his life in a way that will connect him emotionally to his son and granddaughter. The climax arrives when Arthur decides to sing a solo with the choir to honor Marion’s memory.

By participating in the chorale and identifying with its members, Arthur opens up emotionally to the other choir singers and transforms himself from a bitter old man to one who appreciates the value of friendship and family. He even begins to have a meaningful dialogue with his son.

Unfinished Song reminds us that sometimes we are here to finish the song of others. The Talmud tells us that it is not our job necessarily to complete a task. All we have to do is to begin. Once we begin, we do not know where the task will lead, but the very act of starting creates a new direction, a new purpose in our lives. When Arthur finally decides to cast his lot with the choir, he begins to understand his wife Marion’s fervent desire to make the best of every available moment to enjoy life and to bring happiness to others. This realization inspires him to live with optimism and friendship.

Furthermore, the film encourages us to take to heart the words of someone close to death. What they say should be taken very, very seriously. In fact, the Talmud states that “the words of one in danger of imminent death are as if they were written and delivered.” Those last words are weighty, for they are delivered when one is facing mortality. It is the last opportunity to make things right. What a person utters at those critical moments functions as a last will and testament, as a message for eternity.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at [email protected]
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