A Middle-Eastern Romeo and Juliet that misses the mark

Jaffa is the story of two star-crossed lovers, one Jewish, the other Arab.

May 14, 2010 21:07
3 minute read.
Dana Igvy plays the daughter of Moni Moshonov

Jaffa the Movie 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Directed by Keren Yedaya. Written by Yedaya and Ayala Ben Porat. Hebrew title: Kalat Hayam. 100 minutes. In Hebrew and Arabic, check with theaters regarding subtitles.

Keren Yedaya took the film world by surprise when her feature, Or, won the Camera d’Or prize for first-time directors at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. The story of a devoted but confused daughter, Or (Dana Ivgy), caring for her AIDS-infected streetwalker mother (Ronit Elkabetz) in Tel Aviv was stark and shocking. Yedaya’s second feature, Jaffa, was eagerly awaited, but this Israeli-Palestinian version of the Romeo and Juliet story sacrifices vivid characterizations for the sake of its allegory, and never comes alive.

Jaffa takes place just a few minutes away from the teeming streets of Ajami, Israel’s Oscar-nominated film, and perhaps it’s not a fair comparison, but while Ajami was loud and filled with energy, Jaffa is plodding and melodramatic. It focuses on an Israeli family that owns a garage in Jaffa, where their daughter, Mali (Dana Ivgy), falls in love with a young Palestinian mechanic, Tauffik (Mahmood Shalaby). They keep their relationship a secret from her very conventional family, although her father, Reuven (Moni Moshonov), is a fair boss to Tauffik and his father, Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajne).

Her mother, Ossi (Ronit Elkabetz), is a bit bossy and self-absorbed, but it’s Mali’s brother, Meir (Ro’i Assaf) who causes the problems. A lazy, whining shirker, he enjoys bossing around his two Arab workers and is jealous that they are much better mechanics than he is. Mali doesn’t care much about her brother’s problems, since she is so focused on her love. When she discovers she is pregnant, she and Tauffik plan to marry in Cyprus. But then a tragedy happens that inevitably derails everyone’s plans. A second section of the movie takes place several years into the future, but it’s best not to reveal the details here, to preserve some suspense.

This plot summary may make the film sound more romantic than it is. Mali and Tauffik’s love is a done deal when the film opens, so we don’t get to see them discovering each other or struggling with convention or their own preconceptions. They are so noble that they can’t really be sexy together. In scene after scene, we get to watch Mali’s family, mainly her father and brother, bickering around the dinner table, while her indulgent mother tries to play peacemaker. The brilliant actress Ronit Elkabetz is utterly wasted in this colorless role. All she does is sit at the dinner table and try to get everyone to eat the rather unappetizing-looking meals she serves.

This movie brought to my mind a measure I call “The Bus Test”: If I were sitting near these characters on a bus, would I listen avidly to their conversation, getting caught up in their drama, or would I switch seats because they are so petty and grating? Unfortunately, the family in Jaffa flunks the Bus Test. This is a Romeo and Juliet story where we spend most of our time listening to the Capulets argue, and what’s the point of that?

A great deal of good acting goes to waste here. Yedaya remains the only director I’ve seen to date who is able to coax nuanced performances out of the usually one-note Dana Ivgy. Elkabetz, ever the diva, has too much presence for her role. Moni Moshonov does his best in the thankless part of the exasperated Israeli patriarch, as does Hussein Yassin Mahajne in his parallel role. Mahmood Shalaby is extremely handsome, but doesn’t have much to do other than to be victimized.

The Romeo and Juliet story has been retold and transposed again and again, to the streets of New York in West Side Story, and to a showy US suburb in Romeo + Juliet. But in all the successful retellings, the directors never lost sight of the fact that the story, while ultimately tragic, has to be sexy and fun along the way. The lovers must be truly alive before we can care about their fates. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict definitely would make a superb backdrop to a new version of the story, but we’re still waiting for it.

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