(photo credit: PR)
When I watch a movie, the most important question in my mind is “Does it pass the bus test?” This is the bus test: As you watch a movie, imagine you were sitting next to the characters on a bus. Would you become intrigued by what they were saying, and would you lean closer to catch every word? Or would you move farther away so that you wouldn’t have to listen to them? If you want to get away from them, the movie doesn’t pass the bus test.
Sometimes, a movie that fails the bus test may be realistic, which is an adjective filmmakers prize more than audiences do. It may be realistic to show angry people screaming at each other, but there has to be more.
A movie, no matter how harsh the reality it depicts, has to find some way to make you care about the characters, identify with them or like them. It has to make you want to spend a few hours with them.
Efrat Corem’s movie Ben-Zaken fails the bus test and fails it spectacularly and right from the beginning. It opens as two adult brothers, Shlomi (Eliraz Sade) and Leon (Mekikas Ronen Amar), talk with their mother, Dina (Chani Elemlch), with whom they live, about how best to wash the walls of a room. It’s so dull that if I hadn’t been seeing this for work, I would have left right then.
After this, the movie then settles down to telling the story of three miserable generations of the working-class Ben-Zaken family in Ashkelon. The film pays most attention to Shlomi (Eliraz Sade), the younger son, a depressed, chain- smoking mess who has trouble holding down a job, and his motherless 11-year-old daughter, Ruhi (Rom Shoshan). She is savagely bullied at school and acts out at home, spitting out food at the table and cursing out her grandmother, Dina (Chani Elemlch), who has taken her in only reluctantly. The older son, Leon (Mekikas Ronen Amar), is a sour, religious man who sells construction supplies. The plot revolves around whether Ruhi should stay with the family or be placed in a children’s home, and an incest plot is teased but fortunately not developed, as Shlomi and Ruhi sometimes sleep, chastely, in the same bed.
The film comes to life only when Batel Mashian, who plays a sexy neighbor in love with Leon, is on screen. She’s lively and assertive, and you root for her in spite of her foolish behavior in a way you never do for the other characters.
The performances are all good.
Rom Shoshan is utterly believably at every moment as Ruhi. She has a distinctive look, like a young Mayan goddess. Mekikas Ronen Amar gives a brooding sensuality to the thankless role of Leon, who is written very much as a one-note, humorless prig. I hope to see more of Batel Mashian, who ought to have quite a future ahead of her playing sexy Mizrahi girls, the type of role that Rotem Zissman Cohen usually gets.
But the movie belongs to Eliraz Sade as Shlomi. In spite of Shlomi’s self- destructive behavior, Sade manages to show he has a kind of decency.
There is a touching story underneath all the surface unpleasantness of a man who deeply loves his daughter and doesn’t know how to raise her, and a girl who feels his love but still can’t get a grip on herself. I imagine this is the story Efrat Corem wanted to tell. She works well with the actors and has created some striking visuals. But whatever talent she has and whatever potential there is in the story are obscured by all the pointless confrontation and bleakness.
Does this film tell some kind of truth about unhappy working-class families? It may, but seeing it simply rubs some of their suffering off on us.