Friday, August 17, 2012

Avi Nesher's THE MATCHMAKER: an exotic, funny and moving melodrama from Israel

It's been a few years since Avi Nesher's last intriguing and transgressive Israeli movie, The Secrets, so it's terrific to have him back again with yet another wonderful, somewhat strange and rather exotic film, THE MATCHMAKER. What makes the movie seem so exotic lies in its combination of time period, place, and characters: Israel in 1968, soon after the Six-Day War, when everything from social mores to fashions to sex seems to be changing -- and way too fast for some folk. This is also an Israel vastly different from what we see today.

Nostalgia is always tricky, and while one shouldn't want to give in to that longing for a kinder, gentler time, I must say that this movie certainly had that effect on me -- at least where the state of Israel is concerned. Mr Nesher, shown at left, is among Israel's finest filmmakers. In fact, he alone among the top rank, appears to have the ability to create rich, multi-layered and -threaded stories that track some subtle, never-hammered-home ideas in a style that actually attracts and pleases a mainstream audience. He did it with The Secrets, and he's done it again with The Matchmaker -- which combines a coming-of-age tale with culture clash and The Holocaust (not the horrible event itself) but the ramifications of it, still going on more than 20 years later in a manner that Nesher shows us subtly and quietly in the increasingly desolate behavior of two of the movie's main characters.

The Matchmaker is really an ensemble piece, with one of our two heroes, the high-schooler Arik Burstein (Tuval Shafir, above) struggling with first love and a new job in the seedier side of Haifa (he and his family live in a better area of town) when he accepts employment with the very odd matchmaker of the title, a scar-faced fellow named Yankele (Adir Miller, below), our other hero, who is a smuggler and petty criminal, but who also does matchmaking on the side -- especially for folk who might otherwise have some trouble connecting.

We meet Arik's parents, good-hearted Holocaust survivors who are making the best of things; his  Iraqi neighbors and their son, Benny (Arik's best friend); Benny's very pretty, sexy and wild cousin, visiting from the USA (Neta Porat, below, center);

Arik's librarian friend Meir (Dror Keren, below), himself looking for a companion;

and the family of Romanian dwarves who run the local movie theater, the prettiest of which (Bat-El Papura, below, left) for whom Yankele has promised to find a mate.

All this makes up one pretty exotic stew, and Nesher seasons it with a sprinkling of lovely little touches, as well as drawing fine performances from his entire cast. The filmmaker adapted (or as the press release explains, "was inspired by") the 2008 novel, When Heroes Fly, by Amir Gutfreund. I have not read the novel so I can't say how well the movie adheres to Gutfreund's goals. On its own, however, it delivers a tale that is thoughtful, funny, moving and in its way original. I won't easily forget it.

The Matchmaker -- from Menemsha Films and running 112 minutes -- opens today, Friday, August 17, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and the JCC, and in Queens at the Kew Gardens Cinema, while continuing its Los Angeles run at Laemmle's Town Center 5. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters included.

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