Monday, September 14, 2015

Other countries

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2002)

We’re fairly well supplied in Toronto with new Israeli films – one every few months on average. I see most of them, but I’m usually left a little dissatisfied afterwards. Usually I attribute it to my lack of knowledge of Israel’s complexities. I don’t just mean the politics, with which I keep up as best as I can, although they obviously defeat me as they do most of us. I’m thinking more now about the contours of daily life. For example, I’ve seen several films that suggest a distinct vein of liberalism and candor, and of sexual self-determination by young Israeli women – but these images and impressions don’t sit easily with those from other films, or even from elsewhere in the same films.

Of course, one could look from afar at fragmented images of Canada and think them incoherent, but I always imagine (perhaps complacently) that in our case the diversity is part of what defines us. Maybe because we’re accustomed to thinking of Israel as embattled, it’s hard to appreciate how much diversity it can accommodate (maybe the notion of a single “Israel” is largely a fallacy). As if being under attack means that anyone would necessarily defer his or her personal agenda.

Late Marriage

The new film Late Marriage doesn’t help in resolving my issues – far from it. The film suggests an Israeli society (this particular subset is the Georgian émigré community) with huge cracks down the middle – “tradition” rolls along, consuming the older generations, while the younger people…well, they behave much like younger people anywhere else. The film suggests that for now, a combination of economic power and the weight of custom leaves the advantage with the elders. On its own terms, the film is quite excellent. Whether it’s a reliable social document I don’t know.

I suspect it may not quite be, because it seems to be deliberately lampooning, albeit slightly, that older generation. The film opens with an old man in the bathtub, smoking a cigarette as his wife scrubs him. Another couple arrives, and the film for a while follows a familiar kind of broad bantering. The group is preparing to take the second couple’s unmarried 31-year-old son for the latest in a long series of failed meetings with eligible women. The film depicts the process in some detail – the son, Zaza, stays outside until called; the two families sit around and discuss the prospect of the marriage as a straightforward business proposition.

Eventually the marriage candidates go to her room to talk among themselves, and suddenly the film seems modern – the two size each other up with cynical frankness. Their meeting comes to nothing, and Zaza drives his parents home. Then he drives to his lover’s house. The woman is a few years older, a divorcee with a young daughter. They have sex, and the film shows this with the same detail that it earlier devoted to the mechanics of the courtship process – but of course what was earlier amusing now becomes intense and rather unsettling.

Static situation

As a potential partner for him, in his parents’ eyes, she’s frightening, and the rest of the film involves the family’s reaction to her when they find out. The sex scene’s explicitness seems like the film’s sharpest comment on Israel – seeming to underline how the parents’ musty preoccupations float far from the real dynamics of human relationships. And yet, the old men still affect a macho swagger, and it’s clear they’ve had their own flings. The suggestion is that sublimation is eternal.

This all leads to the film’s fine final scene, in which a wedding takes place, and the son seems to come to the very edge of committing what would be the ultimate act of social defiance, before it’s suddenly blunted and rendered safe, and the festivities go on. This last scene seems to come from a different place – there’s a sense of shocked, squirming voyeurism to it. It’s barely connected to what came before, and might almost be a dream or a nightmare. I’ve seldom seen a notionally happy ending that’s so utterly compromised. You feel intensely for the son’s predicament, but also wonder how many other Israeli marriages might take place under similarly mixed emotions.

Director Dover Koshashvili presents all this straightforwardly, but very effectively. “From my viewpoint,” he says, “Zaza’s situation is static, which is reflected in the camera’s fixed state. I do not wish to emphasize the dynamics of my lens. I want to focus the audience’s attention on the characters rather than on the means of expression.” The mission was accomplished, but I wish I understood a little better what he means by “static.” He might as easily have emphasized the opposite – that Zaza’s in a situation that can’t possibly be sustained. Still, the film is one of the blackest comedies in a long while, and one of the most fascinating takes on human relationships. And although I suspect I missed a lot through not understanding the setting, maybe it gains something too in translation – a certain surreal, disembodied nastiness.

Nine Queens

We don’t see quite as many Argentinean films as we do Israeli ones, but Nine Queens is the second in as many months after the Oscar-nominated Son of the Bride – it has the same lead actor too. No agonizing necessary here over the accuracy of what we’re looking at – it’s clear from the start that we’re watching something wholly artificial. That’s not meant to be pejorative. Nine Queens is the story of two small-time con men who team up to pull off the biggest job of their lives. It feels from the start like David Mamet’s House of Games, and as the plot gets increasingly complex and more colourful characters start sprouting up at every turn, you know with complete certainty that everything is not what it appears to be. But of course you don’t know how, and I never did guess entirely (although I was kicking myself afterwards).

The film hints that Argentina’s fraying stability makes a fertile setting for shrewd economic exploitation. “I’ve never seen such goodwill for doing business,” says a Spanish businessman who plays a key part in the plot – and generally seems like a bigger villain than anyone else in the movie does (in one scene, a paper shredder churns away in the background – funny how that’s become such a resonant image post-Enron). And the denouement turns on a back that goes belly-up. There’s something a little discomfiting about these indices of decline being used straightforwardly as plot devices – but I guess we’re the beneficiaries of it, if it makes Nine Queens seem more evocative and earthy than it actually is. There’s little to it except the design of the deception, but as in some of Mamet’s work, when it envelops a movie so completely, it almost becomes a philosophical statement.

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