*1/2 Directed by Ayelet Menahemi. Written by Menahemi and Shemi Zarhin. Hebrew title: Noodle. 90 minutes. In Hebrew, English and Mandarin, with Hebrew titles.
Noodle attempts to create drama out of the interaction between Israelis and the foreign workers in our midst and to focus attention on the often shabby treatment of these workers. These are worthy aspirations. The movie is made by some of Israel's top filmmaking talent, so there was every reason to have high hopes for Noodle. But the good intentions of all these talented people have produced a movie that, when it isn't utterly predictable, is laughably melodramatic. Perhaps, on television, it would work better and its shortcomings would be less glaring. But these days, Israeli audiences rightly expect more than mere competence in their feature films and competence is all that Noodle provides.
The setup is simple. Miri (Mili Avital), a twice widowed flight attendant who lives in Tel Aviv, is withdrawn and lonely. She lives with her sister, Gila (Anat Waxman), who can't decide whether or not she wants to divorce her sad-sack husband, Izzy (Alon Abutbul), who lives a few doors down and works with Miri at the airline. Miri and Gila bicker but are close. Suddenly, Miri finds her routine thrown into chaos when her Chinese cleaning lady tells her she has to go out for an hour and begs Miri to allow her six-year-old son (BaoQi Chen) to stay in her apartment. When the cleaning woman doesn't return, to the surprise of Miri but not of the audience, Miri must figure out what to do with the quiet boy, who speaks no English and can manage only one sentence in Hebrew.
Although most people would probably just go to the police, if Miri didn't allow the boy to stay with her so she can bond with him and feel a new sense of purpose in life, there would be no movie. Miri and Gila buy the boy Chinese food, which he eats - hence his nickname, Noodle (this cutesy title was the one hint I had going in that the movie would be bad). But Miri wants to track down his mother rather than turn him over to the cops, because she is sympathetic to the woman and doesn't want to see her deported. Eventually, it transpires that the mother has already been arrested and sent back to China. The immigration police are the obvious bad guys here and an increasing number of movies over the past few years have depicted the plight of foreign workers in Israel with sympathy, most notably James' Journey to Jerusalem.
Perhaps it is easier for directors to deal with this issue than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since the foreign workers are much more sympathetic: All they want is to stay in the country and work and they don't detonate bombs in public places. The problem with these movies is that the foreign workers are rarely complex, full-fledged characters (James was an exception in that regard and is well worth renting) but are portrayed as sacrificial lambs meant to highlight the flaws in Israeli society. The nearly mute Noodle, a confused innocent who longs only for his mother, fits into this pattern.
The plot thickens when it turns out that the boy was born in Israel and is therefore not a citizen of China. Lacking any documentation to prove that the child is his mother's son and with only the sketchiest information about the mother's whereabouts, Miri comes up with a plot to reunite the two, one which means she has to take considerable risks with her job and even her life.
Although Miri's revitalization through her slowly blossoming affection for Noodle is the most effective part of the movie, the filmmakers are not content to focus on that and added the dullest of soap-opera plots. Is there an attraction between Miri and Izzy? Will Gila follow through and divorce him? Does Gila want to divorce him because of the affair she had years ago with Mati (Yiftach Klein), Miri's old friend from school? Mati is now a famous writer who is fluent in Chinese and can help with Noodle, so Miri gets in touch with him. Will Mati and Gila rekindle their affair?
All of this soapy stuff is done with considerably less aplomb than on any telenovela you can name and is jarring, both because it is mind-numbingly dull and because it interferes with the real story: getting the boy back to his mother. All movies can use a subplot, but these characters are not vivid enough for us to care who they slept with ten years ago.
Writer-director Ayelet Menahemi, who directed the charming and moving Tel Aviv Stories 15 years ago, can do better than this. So can co-writer Shemi Zarhin, the writer-director who made Aviva, My Love and Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi. Noodle is not well-served by its grainy cinematography, which makes the ethereally beautiful Mili Avital look washed out and dispirited. Another quibble: Whose idea was it to cast sexy Alon Abutbul as the nebbish? Anat Waxman does the best she can with a thankless role, since Gila is a dissatisfied, snippy character, but apparently we're meant to like her. BaoQi Chen looks appropriately cute and lost in the title role.
Let's just think of Noodle as an off-day for all concerned and look forward to their next films.
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