Movie review: No prayers answered in 'Tehilim'

The real mystery is how this film was given one of the coveted 21 spots in the main competition at Cannes.

October 11, 2007 13:18
4 minute read.
Movie review: No prayers answered in 'Tehilim'

tehilim film 88. (photo credit: )


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TEHILIM HH Directed by Raphael Nadjari. Written by Nadjari and Vincent Poymiro. 96 minutes. Hebrew title: Tehilim. In Hebrew. The real mystery is how this film was given one of the coveted 21 spots in the main competition at Cannes. Documentary-style feature films can be fascinating, or they can fall flat. Unfortunately, Raphael Nadjari's second feature set in Israel, Tehilim, falls into the latter category. It turns on an intriguing premise: A religious Jerusalem family man suddenly disappears and his family must cope with both his absence and the uncertainty about what has happened to him. It's almost as if Nadjari thought he was really filming a documentary and followed the characters around with a camera without having any idea himself where the story was going. By the end, Tehilim (Psalms) becomes a frustrating experience, life-like in all the ways that life is inferior to the movies. The strongest part of the film is the opening 15 minutes, when Nadjari sets up the plot. The Frankels are a close-knit Modern Orthodox family. Eli (Shmuel Vilozni), the father, works and enjoys taking his teenage son, Menachem (Michael Moshonov) to Talmud classes. David (Yonathan Alster), the younger son, is a playful kid who seems happy, while the mother, Alma (Limor Goldstein), doesn't seem to be as religious as the rest of the family (she wears pants) but gets along smoothly with her husband. Nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen until one morning, when Eli gets into a fender bender while driving his sons to school. Pulling over, he sends Menachem to get help. When Menachem returns, David is in the car alone; Eli has vanished, with no explanation. This is when the real story of the film should begin, but it doesn't. Alma sees the police, and detectives go through the house to find - nothing. She talks to a friend about what to tell the boys. Eli's father Shmuel (Ilan Dar) and brother Aharon (Yoav Hait), who run a family print shop, come to the house with a minyan that prays for Eli's safe return. The nearly constant presence of Shmuel's cronies in her home leads to conflict with Alma, who is having trouble coping now that the family bank account has been frozen. The boys try to draw close to their grandfather and uncle and visit them one Saturday without telling Alma, which upsets her. Menachem struggles to keep things normal with his girlfriend and friends. Alma goes to see the police again. And so on... No need for a spoiler alert here, because there's nothing to spoil. Nothing is revealed about Eli, who must be the world's dullest human. There's not even a 20-year-old love letter or the hint of a shady business deal to provide a gleam of interest. The conflict between the more secular Alma and Eli's family could have provided some substance, but doesn't. The lack of action and the slow pacing simply allow the audience time to think over the film's inconsistencies, such as the incongruity of the fact that a Jerusalem family in which the males all wear black skullcaps and spend their leisure time in Talmud study sends their sons to secular co-ed schools. This is not impossible, simply unusual, and it would be nice to learn the reason behind it, but we don't. Indeed, we learn very little about any of the characters during the course of the film that we didn't know in the first five minutes, and it's hard not to wonder what's the point of it all. The real mystery at the end of the day is how this film was given one of the coveted 21 spots in the main competition at Cannes. The acting is uniformly good, although no one really gets a chance to shine. Young Michael Moshonov is in nearly every scene and seems utterly natural in his role. Limor Goldstein creates sympathy for her character, but the script doesn't give her enough opportunities to dig deeply into the role. In Nadjari's previous film, StonesTehilim, I hope he continues to make movies here.

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