'My Lovely Sister' shines

Sibling rivalry is at the core of this thought-provoking, well-acted Israel film.

My Lovely Sister film 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
My Lovely Sister film 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Directed by Marco Carmel
Written by Marco Carmel and Emmanuel Pinto
Hebrew title: Achoti Hayaffa
Running time: 91 minutes In Hebrew and Moroccan.
Check theaters for subtitle information.
Marco Carmel’s My Lovely Sister is a charming and beautifully acted film about the love and hate between two sisters, based on a Moroccan Jewish folk tale. How much you enjoy it will depend on your ability to deal with a whimsical, supernatural component. Without giving away all the details, suffice it to say that this ghostly element is handled gracefully and elevates the film above the kitchen-sink realism that would have made it ordinary and predictable.
It’s also, in a sly way, a pointedly political film about an issue that is generally taboo in Israeli society.
The film, which received 11 nominations for Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars), including Best Picture, focuses on a Mizrahi family.
They have no money but live within walking distance of a fabulous beach, perhaps Ashkelon or Ashdod. Rahma (Evelin Hagoel) and Marie (Reymonde Amsellem) are two sisters who are estranged because Rahma cannot forgive Marie for marrying an Arab, Ali (Norman Issa).
Although Marie has found real love with Ali, the rift between the sisters comes to dominate both their lives. Rahma blames Marie for hastening the death of their beloved mother, whom Rahma believes still inhabits a corner of their house. Rahma consults the spirit of the mother as if she is an oracle, even obsessively baking cookies for her. This behavior understandably spooks her longsuffering husband, Robert (Moshe Ivgy), and her skeptical son, Kobi (Itay Turgeman). Robert, who may or may not have had a flirtation or even an affair with the more freespirited Marie in the past, urges Rahma to make peace with her sister. Marie is devastated by her banishment from the family, although she seems more surprised by it than might seem logical.
The feud between the sisters and the bitterness and suffering it engenders is only intensified when a major character dies and then returns as a ghost. The ghostly scenes are acted with great intensity that manages to distract from their inherent silliness.
The superb acting is what carries the day here. Hagoel has appeared in dozens of recent movies and television dramas, including Shiva and Turn Left at the End of the World, but this is the first time she’s had a starring role in a movie. Her compelling performance makes Rahma a lost soul to be pitied rather than an intolerant hate-monger.
There’s a problem in the conception of the character because Rahma is so sour and full of hate at the beginning, you know that if she doesn’t open up and begin to blossom, there won’t be any movie.
So there’s a certain predictability in her character’s arc, but not in her graceful performance.
Amsellem has become one of Israel’s finest actresses in recent years and has done remarkable work in such films as Seven Minutes in Heaven and Three Mothers. Here, she has a playful, sensual performance and is more appealing and lighter than she’s had a chance to be in the past.
Ivgy, Turgeman and Issa all give good, low-key performances, but the movie is really about the two sisters. The male characters are all underdeveloped, and this weakens the overall story. It’s hard to care, as all these characters seem to, about what took place between Marie and Robert years ago. Ali is simply The Good Arab. Other than being a devoted husband, he has no role.
There is no word about any hostility his family may have felt toward him for marrying a Jewish woman who chose to remain childless. And there’s no hint about what Marie’s life was like with him. Were they utterly isolated from everyone, both Jews and Arabs, or did she have a role in his community? These questions don’t seem to interest the writer/director Marco Carmel, who is dealing in myth and archetypes.
But they will cross viewers’ minds.
The beautiful, Eastern-accented music is one of the film’s joys, and it underscores the mood throughout.
While this is not a preachy film about intermarriage and assimilation, it does deal with a real question that haunts Israeli life: What happens when Jews and Arabs become close enough to fall in love? While marriages between the groups are rare for obvious reasons, they do happen. And My Lovely Sister examines the fallout from such a union in a more effective and moving way than a more straightforward film would.