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Review: 'The Matchmaker' takes on Israeli history by way of romance

Set mostly in 1968, 'The Matchmaker' is an insightful portrait of Israel's eccentric characters and the search for a deeper connection.

June 29, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Bat-El Papura, from left, Adir Miller and Tuval Shafir in "The Matchmaker."
Bat-El Papura, from left, Adir Miller and Tuval Shafir in "The Matchmaker." (Eyal Landesman / Bildkraft,…)

"The Matchmaker" is a surprise. It sounds like a throwback to an earlier, more traditional style of Israeli filmmaking but it instead provides a view of that country that's as satisfyingly eccentric and unexpected as anything we've seen.

Written and directed by the veteran Avi Nesher, nominated for seven Israeli academy awards and winner of the lead actor and actress prize, "The Matchmaker" is set largely in 1968 and presents itself as the familiar coming-of-age story of a 16-year-old boy.

But, as it turns out, the boy's story is only a part of a larger, more compelling dramatic mosaic and what he learns about the vagaries and perplexities of the human heart is only interesting because of the complex, unusual adults he learns it from.

Before we get to 1968, "The Matchmaker" begins with a brief prelude during the second Lebanon War in 2006 when the city of Haifa is under attack. Arik Burstein and his father Yozi drive through shelling to a lawyer's office where a will is read and Arik finds himself the heir to a gentleman named Yankele Bride, someone he hasn't seen in years and a man he thought hated him.

Back we flash 38 years to young Arik (Tuval Shafir), a boy who knows nothing of love and dreams only of going to war. But a pair of powerful forces are about to make themselves known in his life, one connected to the past, the other to the future, and both capable of wreaking havoc with everything he thinks he knows.

The past presents itself in the form of the unsettling, impenetrable presence of Yankele Bride, an immigrant from Romania with a scarred face and a noticeable limp, a relentless matchmaker who specializes in difficult cases and walks the streets of the city handing out business cards to likely prospects.

Unexpectedly played by stand-up comedian Adir Miller, Yankele turns out to be a long-lost childhood friend of Arik's father Yozi (Dov Navon). Both men are survivors of the camps, a situation neither one wants to talk about and Arik has learned to refer to simply and enigmatically as "back there."

When Arik goes to work for Yankele as a "spy guy," someone who acts like a private detective and checks out the men who come to the matchmaker to see if they are serious about marriage, his world expands in several ways at once.

For one thing, Yankele's tiny office next to a pizza oven is in the infamous "low rent district," a forbidden part of town frequented by sailors, prostitutes and people in search of smuggled goods not available in stores.

There Arik encounters people like Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), a survivor of Joseph Mengele's infamous Auschwitz experiments on dwarfs, who is one of Yankele's clients. Along with her family Sylvia runs a movie theater showing nothing but romances, mostly of the Bollywood variety.

Arik also meets the glamorous but haunted Clara, another survivor beautifully played by Maya Dagon who, along with Miller, took the Israeli acting awards. The picture of elegance but terrified by nightmares that make sleep impossible, she runs an illegal all-night gambling club for people like her, people who want to live as much as they can despite the damage that has been done to them.

Through "The Matchmaker" we get a sense both of survivors and a country that did not know quite what to do with them, a country that was embarrassed by these people and their peculiar habits — for instance Yankele's iron-clad insistence, "Never leave food on plate. Never."

Yankele works as a matchmaker not to earn a living but because it is a calling. Though love is absent from his life, his experience has led him to believe absolutely that it is "no good for people being alone."

If these people are the past,Israel'sAmericanized future is represented by Tamara (Neta Porat), the cousin of Arik's best friend, an Iraqi Jew exiled to Haifa for the summer from her American home. Tamara shows up in short red skirt and cowboy boots trailing American rock 'n' roll and a determination to shake things up. A connection between her and Arik is inevitable, but even this does not turn out exactly as expected.

Inspired by Amir Gutfreund's novel "When Heroes Fly," "The Matchmaker" is more honest than formulaic, an offbeat look at an in-between, questioning time in Israeli history. Love is not the whole answer for anyone here, but the potential for love is finally all any of the characters have.

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'The Matchmaker'

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Town Center 5, Encino; Fallbrook 7, West Hills

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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