Dir: Raphael Nadjari. Fr / Is. 2007. 96 mins.
Raphael Nadjari is back, digging again at the 'dialectical dimensions of Judaism' (as he calls it), a labour of love that he has persistently pursued in all his films to date. A quiet, subdued and remarkably controlled drama, fiercely introverted and secretive, it tells the story of an unexplained disappearance, but at no point does it try to solve the mystery. Instead Nadjari observes the family affected by this sudden absence and the way each person deals with it.
Planting his story firmly in an observant Jewish milieu, for which Jerusalem provides the ideal background, Nadjari's dispassionate look at this family is so smoothly accurate in every little detail and moves with such an assured, unhurried pace towards its goal that audiences will soon forget they are watching a film and believe it is life itself unfolding before their eyes.
Michael Moshonov, as the older son of a man who simply disintegrates into thin air after a car accident, and Yonathan Alster as his younger brother, carry with perfect poise the brunt of a story whose subtexts suggest dramatic undercurrents that never come out into the open. Still, being unobtrusive by nature and offering no clear-cut conclusive cathartic climax for multiplex crowds, Nadjari's best shot is with arthouse patrons and film festivals.
There is something particularly clean and simple about the plot. One day, Eli (Shmuel Vilojni), middle-aged, religious but no zealot, married and father of two boys, drives his kids to school. Normally affable and easygoing, he is unusually tense behind the wheel, losing control of the car and driving it off the road. The older son, Menachem (Moshonov) runs to call for help. When he comes back, his younger brother, David (Alster) is lying on the back seat in need of medical assistance, but Eli is nowhere to be found.
Once home, every member of the family tries to find his own way of dealing with Eli's unexpected departure. His wife, Alma (Limor Goldstein), a loving and devoted mother whose background is far more secular than her husband's, hurt and distraught, applies herself to the everyday routines needed to keep the household going. Menachem, a teenager in distress at the most fragile stage of his life, is confused, offended, abandoned and looking around for some kind of explanation and thread of hope that might lead to his parent. Little David gropes his way in the dark, sensing more than understanding what is going on. Around them, Eli's father, Shmuel (Ilan Dar) and brother Aharon (Yohav Hayit) mobilise the religion-studying group (which Eli used to belong to as well), to read Psalms (Tehilim in Hebrew) and pray together for his return. For them, the only way back to normalcy is through Faith and Family, as they represent it, and Alma's unwillingness to accept this is deeply hurtful. Strangely enough, coming as she does from a completely different background, Alma's mother (Naomi Tzvick) proposes exactly the same thing, asking her daughter to come back to the parental home with her boys.
Nadjari keeps in the background throughout, telling the story in its simplest terms, allowing each sequence to establish itself, grow on screen and play itself out naturally, refusing to intrude or disturb. The audience is invited to guess the emotional turmoil of each character, for they never seem capable of more than polite conversation, and the silence reigning in the last frame could easily irk those who expect explicit statements to wrap up the plot. Economy is evident in every sense here, not necessarily because of budget restrictions but as an ethical and aesthetic choice. Functional, precise choice of sets and locations, as well as an unobtrusive camera that carefully avoids any self-serving eye-catching exploits, naturally blend with the understated acting.
Moshonov, whose face is a map of untold anguish, and Alster, as his brother seeking solace but not at any price, are in evidence most of the time, but Goldstein, Dar and Hayit, jostling with each other as they are looking for common ground to share, are both moving and fascinating in their own way.
Shmuel Yohav Hayit
Ilanit Ben Yaakov