Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 24, 2016 4:41 pm 
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Looking for dad

In Israeli director Shemi Zarhin's new film, three adult siblings have a somewhat contentious relationship, but that is going to end. Their mother (Levana Finkelstein) has an operation to remove a tumor she has been ignoring, and dies. The grumpy, outspoken middle child, Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen), who dominates the scene, has expelled her handsome husband Ricki (Tsahi Halevi) from her life, due to a series of miscarriages. He will come back. Older brother Netanel (Roy Assaf), who's become Orthodox to please an American wife, is uncomfortable with the open gayness of their younger sibling Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon), but he gets over it. When they sit shiva for their mother, everyone outside the immediate family is expelled and the three are closely, visibly, united.

And suddenly something else unites them. Their estranged father (Sasson Gabai) arrives with shocking news. Tested to please his new young wife who wants a baby, he's learned he's sterile, which must mean he's not their father. Their late mother, who was born in Algeria, made regular trips to France. Shai, suddenly practical and energetic, sets everything up for he three of them to go to Paris to visit their aunt, whom their mother saw there and must know things. All three happen to be free, so off they go with Shai the travel planner (he even seems to have bought them matching suitcases). Who should urn up at their nice French hotel but Ricki. And later, at an odd moment, their father also arrives.

Their aunt, addressing them half in French and half in Hebrew, is a sweet lady, if rather vague. She tells them a story about their mother being in a film long ago with an Algerian man named Maurice Leon whom both sisters, at the time, were in love with. Despite the name, he was probably an Arab, or may e a Jew, maybe a Christian. Who knows? Obviously their mother concealed this from them for many years. The film was never completed, but the aunt has stills of their mother with this handsome, shaved-headed man. (The panorama showing them together at this time, in the lost film, seems rather contrived.) The aunt tells them Maurice Leon may still be living in Marseille, where she last heard of him. So off they go to Marseille. By way of transition, it's a city, they note, of 80,000 Jews. "That's good," one says. But it has 300,000 Arabs. "It's Gaza!" another exclaims. They find the cafe their aunt told them about that Maurice he used to run. He's not there anymore and the club has changed names, but they find Maurice, in a quiet apartment off a quiet square. He opens the door, looking at an old photo of Dorona as a girl with her mother in the square outside. But he denies any knowledge of their mother or of them.

The film takes on the air of a playful comedy as the quartet, the three siblings and Ricki, run around from Paris to Marseille and then, rejected by Maurice, sneak around the streets of Marseille following him like characters in a silent comedy. They finally have another, more solemn, encounter with the old man. The actor who plays him, French-Algerian-Arab Michael Haneke film veteran Maurice Benichou, has so much profound dignitas and sadness about him, he makes the multiple threads of family squabbling that have come before look rather like sit-com silliness.

What does it matter? What's past is past. But of course if your father isn't your father that does mean something, even if he annoys you and you're estranged from him. In the end nothing is resolved. Dorona, Netanel, Shai, and even Ricki and poor sterile dad are united by this mystery and journey touched off by the death of the mother - who seemed a vivid character while she lasted.

Zarhin's film is watchable but has pacing problems. Despite the plot's grazing the momentous questions of a mother's mysterious past and a suddenly uncertain patrimony, The Kind Words meanders and risks seeming inconsequential. Aside from the horrible thought that they might be Arab, the message seems that families can forge bonds by association that are stronger than bloodline. Maurice Benichou, a strange, tragic figure from Hanake, points to another, more haunting film this might have been.

The Kind Words/Hamilim Hatovot, 118 mins., debuted at Toronto 28 May 2015, and opened in France (as De douces paroles) 25 May 2016 to polite but mediocre reviews (AlloCiné press rating 2.8/5 based on 9 reviews). It opens released by Strand in US theaters starting 24 June 2016 (Lincoln Plaza Cinemas NYC), 1 July in Los Angeles. This is the director's sixth feature, but we don't seem to have heard about him outside of Israel till now.

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