When Tel Aviv-based Savi Gabizon's film "Nina's Tragedies" became the first Israeli narrative feature to show at the Sundance Film Festival, it was a long-awaited U.S. breakthrough for the 45-year-old filmmaker, whose movies regularly win prizes and pull in audiences back home but hadn't gotten any traction in America.
But what really made Gabizon proud on his visit during the 2004 festival was a screening of "Nina's Tragedies" not for Park City cinephiles but for regular Utahans in Salt Lake City.
"I asked afterward how many Israelis were in the audience, and there were none," Gabizon recalled recently, the surprise of that moment registering again in his voice. "These were everyday Americans, and they laughed at the same points!"
Now, Wellspring is giving "Nina's Tragedies" -- a delicately wrought examination of love, fate and grief with ripples of piquant, sometimes bawdy humor, and the winner of 11 Israeli Academy Awards -- a U.S. release. The loose story, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, concerns 14-year-old Nadav (Aviv Elkabets) and his beautiful aunt Nina (Ayelet July Zurer), who have each lost loved ones -- a father and husband, respectively. Their mourning, however, takes them in surprising directions, and into entanglements with a panoply of left-of-center characters, from a peeping tom to a man obsessed with sleep disorder to a poetry-writing army chief.
Everybody is a little mad, and a little sad: quintessentially human and worthy of laughter and tears, said the filmmaker.
"In comedy, you stand above characters, you laugh at them. In drama and tragedies, you are at the same level with the characters, you feel with them and want with them. So this move, up and down, to love and to cry at the same scene is the best and most wonderful thing about movies for me."
Wonderful, maybe, but also mysterious enough that Gabizon's muse doesn't strike too often: he's only made three films in 15 years. (His last was 1996's "Lovesick on Nana Street," about obsessive love.)
"It's like a bug," said Gabizon, who supplements his directing career by teaching film, and overseeing the drama department at the Israeli television network, Reshet. Still, he said, "I need to make the gap smaller."
He cherishes the mystical, uninhibited nature of writing, as long as what eventually gets on the page makes sense to him. Gabizon can't explain, for example, how his once-discarded idea of two peeping tom protagonists cropped up again in a new scenario of a boy in love with his widowed aunt -- "the perverts came back into the story, and no one invited them, but it was wonderful," he said. Yet the rationalist in him wanted to make sure that whatever seemed fanciful and odd in the film had a reason for being there, a justification in the material world. Nina having a vision of her dead husband walking naked along a busy Tel Aviv street, for example.
"I wanted to make it natural, explain this phenomenon," Gabizon said. "It was a challenge."
A source of inspiration for him is the work of occasionally subversive French director Bertrand Blier ("Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," "Too Beautiful for You"). "He works hard to bring you something you haven't seen before," Gabizon said. "He takes risks, and sometimes it becomes more bizarre, but he is trying to find fresh moments."
And when invention failed, Gabizon could pull episodes of eccentricity from his own life, including one from his experiences in the filming unit of the Israeli army reserves. "Once, a commander said to me and my producer, '20 shekels, please, each of you.' And because we're afraid of him ... we put out 20 shekels. He then put two books out, and said, 'This is yours, a book of poems I wrote.' Just like in the movie."
If "Nina's Tragedies," with its shadowy, rain-soaked melancholy and off-kilter sense of humor, carries more of a European vibe than other Israeli films, that's because Gabizon is committed to expanding the notion of what an Israeli film is. Namely, that it doesn't have to address the country's political crises.
Recent films like the bittersweet comedy "Late Marriage" and the family drama "Broken Wings" have found U.S. audiences by addressing contemporary Israelis' hopes, desires and fears even though they steer clear of world stage issues such as terrorism and occupation.
"It's a fresh view," said Ryan Werner, head of theatrical distribution for Wellspring. "You usually don't get to see Israeli movies here that are not political ... in some way at the forefront."
Gabizon is excited about the prospect of Israeli films of all stripes reaching a wider global audience, because it's been enough of a challenge to get Israelis to accept homegrown films.
"It's a snobbery in Israel," Gabizon said, "a crisis of belief. There was no pleasure in Israeli film in the '70s. We were the first to do films about Palestinian problems, about how we occupy people, and people didn't like to see those films here. They thought they would not enjoy it. Now there is no reason to do [political films] because the media deal with it all the time."
He even believes the Israeli government's steps forward of late -- toward reducing its Gaza settlements, for instance -- have had an effect on the acceptance of the country's films outside its borders, especially the less politically fraught stories. As Gabizon's logic goes, "Israel looks like a country that really wants peace, so the world agrees to take a love story from Israel."