‘Obsession’ won’t grip you

As a ‘kitchen-sink film,’ this Israeli drama doesn’t hold water.

By
February 3, 2012 18:05
3 minute read.
'Obsession' still.

'Obsession' still. 390. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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There are certain trends that are becoming apparent in the booming Israeli film industry, and one is that groups that have been overlooked by the movies in the past are finding their voices.

While Mizrahi Jews were never exactly ignored on film in the past, they were most often figures of fun.

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As a community that, in the past, was often less well off financially than their Ashkenazi counterparts, some have felt discriminated against or marginalized by other Israelis and resented the fact that their traditions and their religiosity were belittled.

Now, more than ever, they are making films that give their side of the story a serious hearing.

In Britain, working class-born filmmakers went through a similar process, which gave rise to what were called Kitchen-Sink Films, meaning films that were set in cramped apartments and slums. In such movies as The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Look Back in Anger, Brits vented their fury at the ruling classes and laid bare the misery of their lives.

Now in Israel we have a growing mini-genre of the Mizrahi kitchen-sink movie. While the older, broad slapstick comedies in Israel were called Seretei Bourekas (Bourekas Movies), after the greasy snack food bourekas, perhaps these new dramas deserve their own name. I’d like to suggest Seretei Kubbeh, after the more basic, filling staple of Mizrahi cuisine. There have been dozens of these films in the last few years, notably the two films from siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, To Take a Wife and Shiva.

The latest Seret Kubbeh, or Mizrahi Kitchen-Sink movie, to come along is Nissim Notrika’s Obsession, or, as it is called in Hebrew, Resisei Ahava (fragments of love).

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As is true with most of the films in this category, it is a showcase for strong acting. In this case, Reymond Amsalem, a fine actress who shone last year in My Lovely Sister, has a very showy starring role as Malka, a young Mizrahi wife and the mother of four children in the Nahlaot section of Jerusalem in the late 1960s. She is hopelessly in love with her husband, Sammy (Yehezkel Lazarov), a ne’er-do-well who gambles away the little money they have and also has an affair with a single woman a few streets away.

Malka and Sammy’s two older children, one a soldier and the other a bright young woman who has moved to a kibbutz, rarely come home and do all they can to avoid the constant bickering of their parents. Another young son is studying for his bar mitzva and hoping that his parents will come up with the money to celebrate it, while the youngest, Micha, refuses to, or can’t, speak, a fact that causes less trouble than you might imagine.

And there is a Holocaust survivor neighbor who is in love with Malka and is waiting patiently for her marriage to fall apart.

While the actors do excellent work, the production design is lovely and the music is quite haunting, it’s a difficult movie to sit through. There are few surprises as the religious and devoted Malka finds her feelings trampled over and over by this handsome cad. If this is your family’s story, you may relate to it as many people have told me they related to To Take A Wife and, even more, Shiva.

We can all understand the tragedy of Malka’s situation: The whole social structure is built around keeping married couples together, but she just uses that as an excuse to stay with this worthless man she is so in love with, when everyone around her sees that she would be better off without him.

But those who don’t have a strong personal connection to this material won’t get much out of this film. It comes down to what I call The Bus Test: If you were sitting near these characters on a bus, would you listen to their conversation with interest or would you move so you didn’t have to hear it? Unfortunately, Obsession fails The Bus Test. It’s simply agonizing to see a self-absorbed womanizer torment everyone around him, and it’s terribly frustrating to watch such a striking, capable woman waste her love on such a man.

Perhaps in the future there will be more Seretei Kubbeh that will be able to strike a universal chord and transcend the grimness and claustrophobia of their subject matter.

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