Take Israeli director Avi Nesher out of Israel, and he creates celluloid crap of the third order. Consider She (1982) with Sandahl Bergman. Or Doppelganger (1993) with Drew Barrymore? Or even Ritual (2002) with Jennifer Grey? If you haven’t been face-to-face with any of these features, you’re probably being rewarded for accomplishing something quite wonderful in a former life.
But drop-ship Nesher back to his native country, and he can surprise you. Turn Left at the End of the World (2004) is semi-engaging look at the plight of Indian immigrants living in the backwoods of Israel during the sixties. As for The Secrets (2007), here’s an exceptionally fine tale of an Orthodox Jewish young woman who wants to break all the rules by studying the Talmud and living her life as a lesbian. Really a must-see.
Now Nesher’s latest effort, The Matchmaker, is currently trodding down the theater aisles. No confetti is needed.
A “partial literary adaptation, inspired” by Amir Gutfreund’s When Heroes Fly, The Matchmaker is a flashback look at one summer in the life of Arik (Tuval Shafir), a listless Haifa teenager, in 1968, just after the Six-Day War.
All the boy does is play soccer with his pals until the mysterious Yankele Bride (Adir Miller) shows up. This heavy-set gent with a scarred face turns out to be an old friend of Arik’s dad from Romania: both survived the Holocaust, and they only meet again due to a prank of Arik’s. Bride instantly offers a job to the lad as a spy for his matchmaking service, which is basically a front for his black-market shenanigans. It’s also a reason enough for the stolid “businessman” to spout aphorisms such as: “Love at first sight is divorce at second sight. Trust me!”
Other characters include cinema owner Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), an attractive dwarf desperately looking for love; Clara (Maya Dagan), a lush, yet emotionally damaged blonde who runs secret card games out of her apartment; and Meir (Dror Keren), a lonely librarian with a vindictive streak. Then there’s the arrival of hot-to-trot Tamara (Neta Porat), Arik’s best friend’s free-love-endorsing cousin who plays British rock quite loudly.
Suddenly, Arik must embrace being a man, which includes staring at Tamara a lot, snooping on Bride’s clients, and learning about the Holocaust, which is a topic everyone around him refuses to discuss. Why? Because, as one character states, in the eyes of those who were never there, the Sabras, that to have survived life in a concentration camp is a sure sign that you must have done something tawdry. Either you were a kapo who battered your fellow Jews, a prostitute for the Nazis, or a thief who stole bread from those weaker than yourself. Ignorance is sometimes the hardest enemy to defeat.
So The Matchmaker is clearly about pain, and the memories of that pain, which sometimes can’t be eradicated. The film argues that not all lives can be rebuilt. As for its take on wedded bliss: sometimes you’re better off getting what you need rather than what you want.
Yet while powerful in content and intentions, Nesher’s screenplay is disjointed and unmoving, the visuals ordinary, and the direction sporadically inept. There’s no pacing, no suspense, no art. In the end, The Matchmaker is to fine drama what gefilte fish is to lox. Hold the cream cheese. Of course, if you like gefilte fish like I do, with a little horseradish, you’ll get through this affair none the worse for wear. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "The Arts in New York City," "American Jewish Theater," and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.