Reading a newspaper, turning on the evening news, or checking Twitter these days means wrestling with the notion we’re living through the end times. Cynical young people are fleeing their respective religious institutions en masse, and given the rise of populist movements, growing income inequality, and the effects of climate change, who can blame them? Director Aaron Wolf’s documentary, Restoring Tomorrow, tells the story of a revered Los Angeles temple’s struggle to survive in an increasingly secular society. Wolf uses the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renaissance as the framing device for his own tale of self-discovery.
Restoring Tomorrow documents LA’s revered Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s creation, deterioration, and unlikely renaissance. The account begins in the 1920’s with Rabbi Edgar Magnin (aka the Rabbi to the stars) who turned to his network of movie studio contacts to get the temple built. Powerful men from MGM, Universal, and Warner Bros. contributed everything from large sums of cash to the set designers who painted intricate murals on the walls. In true Hollywood fashion, the building’s structure was style over substance, with shaky foundations, and flimsy support systems that looked stunning but weren’t sturdy enough for the long haul. As the city exploded in population and the demographics changed, the temple became less of a cultural hub, and fell into disrepair. Restoring Tomorrow focuses on the changes taking place in the past decade aimed at restoring the temple and creating a feeder system for the local Jewish community.
Restoring Tomorrow is as straight-forward as documentaries get. It combines archival footage, interviews, and Wolf’s own confessional footage for an informative, albeit hagiographic account of the temple’s history. A large portion of the movie centres on Steven Leger, the head Rabbi who helped secure the temple’s $150 million revitalization initiative. Leger makes for an intriguing subject, speaking with the charisma of a man who regularly presides over giant rooms full of people. But the film’s central figure is Wolf, who lacks that same screen presence. His moments pining for the camera feel stilted and disingenuous, and you can feel him straining to fold his personal account into the documentary’s larger narrative.
The film’s two main themes don’t align as well as the filmmaker intends. There’s the story of how the deteriorating temple came back from the brink of collapse, and the through-line about a lost generation (Wolf) getting in touch with their faith. Restoring Tomorrow’s second point isn’t well-argued or engaging. Wolf periodically intercuts the documentary with images of churches, temples, and mosques fallen into disrepair – it’s how he makes his case that religious faith is waning across the world. But at the end of the film, Wolf reveals that like the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, these institutions have also been restored, as though people around the globe randomly have the same spiritual epiphany as him. He doesn’t explain why people leave their faith, what they replace it with, or what brings them back. We’re left to conclude that sticking to one’s faith is a satisfying route to take because Wolf finds his own path fulfilling.
At the end of the picture when Wolf’s childhood temple finally gets restored, the music swells while he describes the joys of rediscovering his faith. The sequence feels forced, comes off as kitschy, and detracts from the inspiring tale that preceded these final moments. This filmmaker has much to say about humanity’s need for faith, community, and sense of history, but the reasoning for these revelations feels myopic. These days, people can’t agree that water is wet, so when your film sells viewers on the virtues of faith, you better find relatable common ground. Wolf’s arguments are about as convincing as a kid standing at the front of their class, declaring that her mom is the best mom in the whole world. That line of reasoning, as passionate as it may be, only holds up until it’s the next child’s turn to speak.