The world’s a stage

'Maya' tells a familiar story in an essentially engaging manner.

June 11, 2010 22:00
3 minute read.
Liron Ben-Chelouche and Gil Frank in 'Maya.'

maya movie 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)

Maya (ISR)
Directed and written by Michal Bat-Adam. Hebrew title: Maya. 100 minutes. In Hebrew, check with theater for subtitle information.

Michal Bat-Adam was one of Israel’s most admired actresses, although in recent years, with the help of her husband and mentor, producer/director Moshe Mizrahi, she has turned her focus to directing. The results have been mixed at best. But with her new film, Maya, she tells a simpler and more heartfelt, semi-autobiographical story, and much of the film is an engaging coming-of-age drama about a young actress. Maya, the heroine, is played with quiet appeal by Liron Ben-Chelouche. Her charm enables the film to transcend some of the screenplay’s clichés. When you leave, you’ll remember her waifish charm (she looks like a cross between Andie MacDowell and Jennifer Connelly) and forget the tired issues the film keeps pushing.

It’s a rare film about the theater that doesn’t resort to clichés (even the Bette Davis classic All about Eve was full of them), but there’s no denying the drama inherent in the struggle of an ambitious young actress to make it. Maya moves to Tel Aviv and falls into the usual aspiring actress routine of waitressing and taking classes from a diva-like teacher. She’s about ready to pack up and go home when she gets to read for a well-known director Hagai (Gil Frank) for the lead in his next play. She dazzles him, and he gives her the role in spite of her lack of experience or a degree in theater. The play tells the story of his cousin, who got pregnant out of wedlock, was pressured by her family to have an abortion, and then suffered what used to be called a nervous breakdown. It’s close to his heart, and as Maya plays the lead role of Nili, he begins to fall in love with her. She is instantly attracted to the older director but fears that if they have a romantic relationship, their working one will suffer. The film milks this situation for some drama, since otherwise it would simply be an overnight success and love story.

But then it adds another drama to the mix. Hagai suggests to the psychiatrist who is acting as an adviser to the production that it might help Maya to spend some time with the patients at the mental hospital where he works. The scenes with the mental patients are lively and reminiscent of group scenes in Girl, Interrupted. However, they are the usual cinematic idea that the mentally ill are fragile souls who reflect society’s madness. Each patient has a single, well-defined problem. For example, one woman lines up objects endlessly because “she thinks it will make her mother love her.”

Bat-Adam is back in that 1950s mentality that confuses psychosis with poetry (anyone who has spent time around real psychotics is not likely to make this mistake). Maya is charmed by these tortured souls and brings some of their quirks into her performance. The doctor advising the production approves of this very much because he thinks it will break stereotypes about mental illness, but Hagai is furious. “It may be true, but it’s not dramatic,” he fumes, although in fact the shtick she takes from the doctor’s ward is neither true nor dramatic. The real problem is not whether the film itself is accurate when presenting mental illness but rather that it becomes increasingly predictable and stagy as it presents this conflict. Will Maya go her own way and be true to the mental patients or will she follow her lover’s directions? That’s at the heart of the drama, and it’s extremely hard to care about the outcome. In some ways, it’s a refreshing change that most of the characters are essentially decent people – even the driven Hagai is basically likable. But on the other hand, when everyone’s nice, there are no villains and little drama.

Another problem that becomes increasingly grating is watching all the rehearsals and performance of Hagai’s play. We hear the same scenes over and over again, and only great writing can bear so much repetition. There is some great writing here, though: excerpts from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire that Maya and some of her fellow acting students perform in class and other settings. It’s a pleasure to hear those unforgettable speeches in Hebrew. They remind you what theater at its best is all about and why it might touch the heart of a young woman like Maya.

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