An Israeli Auteur Emerges

The bard of working-class Sephardim, in film and now on the page, Shemi Zarhin is having his moment.

10/16/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
"The World is Funny" is Zarhin's newest film.
"The World is Funny" is Zarhin's newest film.

One of the most difficult things a filmmaker can attempt is to create a narrative that shifts tones abruptly but effectively; to veer between comedy and tragedy with such skill that an audience follows along unflaggingly, regardless of where the emotional currents lead.

With his latest film, “The World Is Funny,” Shemi Zarhin moves to the head of that particular class. Taken in tandem with the publication of his first novel, “Some Day,” Zarhin is emerging as one of the most gifted of a very talented cohort of Israeli auteurs. If you have any doubt of that, go to the “Shemi Zarhin Movie Marathon” Oct. 22-23.  The program will include “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi” (2003), “Aviva My Love” (2006) and “World” (2012), as well as a Q&A with Zarhin, who will read from the novel.

“I have wanted to raise awareness to Zarhin’s work for years,” Isaac Zablocki, director of the JCC’s Israel Film Center, wrote in a recent e-mail. “He has truly created a new genre of Israeli films that represents Israeli life with universal cinematic tools, but so specifically told from within. He has been the ultimate example of the rise of new Israeli culture.

Beyond the films he directs, you will see his name influencing every Israeli film that tells a universal internal story — like ‘Noodle,’ about a flight attendant taking care of a Chinese child, or ‘A Matter of Size,’ about Israeli dieters who give up on their program to be Sumo wrestlers. [Both films were written by Zarhin.] These are worlds that exist only in movies, but with true Israeli specifics that are most realistic.”

It is Zarhin’s rootedness within a specific location — Tiberias — and milieu — the aspiring Sephardic working class — that gives his films and the novel such flavor.

Consider “Aviva,” a sprightly and warm film that utilizes the old, dismissive stereotypes of Israeli Sephardim as a boomerang that turns round to clout its Ashkenazi thrower. The film’s central figure, the eponymous Aviva (Assi Levy), is a Moroccan Jew who is juggling in her job as a hotel cook, caretaker for her crazy mother, unemployed husband and three kids who suffer from a variety of character flaws and tics. At the same time, pushed by her sister Anita, she is trying to pursue a writing career under the guidance of one-book wonder Oded (Sasson Gabai). As the plot synopsis might suggest, Zarhin starts the film off in a highly comic vein, bordering on TV sitcom.

But after the first 20 minutes, it takes a sharp but well-modulated turn into something much darker. Perhaps Oded sums it up best when he asks his pupil, “You’re a funny woman, why are your stories so tragic?”

In both “World” and “Some Day,” Zarhin extends his reach daringly, combining several plotlines in rewardingly intricate mosaics. “World” expands on the theme of storytelling by centering its multiple narrative threads in a writing workshop populated by an odd mix of locals that includes Zafi (newcomer Naama Shitrit), a young woman who cleans houses and serves as one of the key links between the various characters. The main storylines feature Yardena (Assi Levy again), who is puzzled to discover that she is pregnant at 40 despite being, she thinks, celibate for years; Meron (Danny Steg) and his sons, one of whom has been in a coma for almost a decade and awakens with the mind of a 10-year-old; and Golan (Eli Finish), a disk jockey with a girlfriend dying of cancer and an obsession with the defunct comedy trio HaGashash HaChiver. Indeed, it’s an obsession that is shared by everyone in Tiberias, another link among the characters and that culminates in a wonderful shot of the town seen from a distant hill, with comedy group echoing from what seems like every radio in Northern Israel.

As in his earlier films, Zarhin is concerned here with the fraying of family ties under extreme pressure. We learn early in the film that Yardena, Meron and Golan are estranged siblings, but only will be told in the last half-hour what drove them apart. In the meantime, with his seamless camera movements and artfully matched cuts, Zarhin insists on their interconnectedness despite the years of separation. Like everything else in this deliciously complex film, it’s an elegant and very satisfying structure.

The same might be said of “Some Day.” Again the city of Tiberias and its workaday Sephardim are the center of the artistic universe. Again Zarhin gives us a protagonist with a buried talent, this time for cooking. Shlomi is an awkward 7-year-old at the outset of the novel: smart but unable to read, and madly in love with his neighbor, the precocious Ella, a daughter of survivors of the Shoah. His mother Ruchama is an unusually tall but striking woman with a unique culinary gift, one that eventually will emerge in her son as well. His father Robert is a diminutive lady-killer with long hair and a facility as a handyman. His kid brother is a language-obsessed physical weakling with a tendency to persistent ear infections. Some of the plot developments are signposted early on — inevitably, it is Hilik, the little brother, who will teach Shlomi to read. Robert will fall into bed with a couple of obvious candidates.

Zarhin’s approach to the multiple stories and dizzying shifts in point of view reflects his background as a screenwriter and director. As in “World,” he keeps the wheels spinning giddily, moving back and forth in time and space, mixing magical realism and urban grit deftly. He seldom makes the mistake of letting the surreal elements do the hard work of creating character or working through narrative complications. Rather, they are expressions of heightened emotional states, working as much metaphorically as anything else.

At 450 pages, the book feels a trifle attenuated, but not seriously so, and Zarhin sidesteps some too-obvious narrative choices neatly. The translation by Yardenne Greenspan maintains a nice control of tone, no small trick in a book whose tone shifts so frequently. But that is becoming Zarhin’s trademark.

The Shemi Zarhin Movie Marathon takes place Oct. 22-23 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.). For the schedule of films, Zarhin’s reading and more information, call (646) 505-5700 or  go to www.jccmanhattan.org/film. “Some Day” by Shemi Zarhin is published by New Vessel Press, an excellent new house specializing in contemporary books in translation; the book is available in paperback or as an e-book; for information go to www.newvesselpress.com.
 

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