(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hebrew title: Plaot.
Directed by Avi Nesher
Written by Nesher and Shaanan Streett
With Ori Hizkiah, Efrat Gosh, Yehuda Levi, Adir Miller, Yuval Scharf
Running time: 112 minutes.
In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information
It’s rare that an established director makes a movie that challenges both himself and his audience, but that’s what Avi Nesher has done with The Wonders , which just opened throughout Israel.
In interviews, Nesher has described the film as Lewis Carroll meets Carol Reed (the director of the noir classic The Third Man ), but it has another critical element – the presence of Jerusalem. While it isn’t the first time Jerusalem has been portrayed on film by any means, the capital often gets a superficial, picture-postcard cinematic treatment. It’s rare that the full range of the city’s vibrancy, diversity and mystery are depicted on film.
The Wonders is both a reflection of the city and an attempt to understand it, which gives it the special intensity of movies with a distinct sense of place, like the Paris of the French New Wave or New York of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.
It’s no accident that the film brings to mind two such different directors – Scorsese and Allen – because it’s a mixture of genres and moods, and it combines animation and live action (although the majority of the film is live action).
Co-written with Shaanan Streett, the lead vocalist for the Israeli funk, hip-hop band Hadag Nahash, The Wonders is about Ariel Navon (Ori Hizkiah), nicknamed Arnav (Hebrew for “rabbit”), a gentle slacker graffiti artist/bartender trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Efrat Gosh), who has recently become Orthodox. One day he glimpses a Rabbi Knafo (Yehuda Levi) being led into an apartment across from his building and begins to suspect that the rabbi is being held against his will. As he tries clumsily to help the rabbi, Arnav is approached by a gruff private eye, Ya’acov Gittes (Adir Miller, playing a character whose name is an obvious homage to Chinatown ), who wants to use his apartment to keep an eye on the rabbi, who is believed by his followers to be a modern-day prophet. Gittes has been hired by Ella (Yuval Scharf), a mysterious beauty, to find out what is happening to Knafo. A key part of the mystery is how much Arnav should get involved and whether he should believe these three interlopers: the rabbi, the detective, and the beauty. There are clear overtones of the mystery, imagery and playfulness of Alice in Wonderland in the story, and Arnav’s drawings come to life and illuminate the action at key moments. Songs by Hadag Nahash also underscore the action.
Nesher started out in the late 1970s with two classics about Israeli young people – Ha Lahaka (The Troupe) and Dizengoff 99 . In the 1980s, he moved to Hollywood but returned to Israel and made Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), the story of two teenage girls, one Indian and one Moroccan, who bond in the Negev; The Secrets (2007), about young haredi women who delve into Kabbala study; and The Matchmaker (2010), about a boy who gets a job working for a mysterious matchmaker in Haifa.
Strong currents of emotion and humor, as well as coming-of-age journeys, link these three very different films. In T he Wonders , Nesher continues to explore these themes but with a hero who is older chronologically but in many ways younger at heart than any of the director’s previous heroes. It’s a film that transcends its genre plot elements to look at the questions and fears that preoccupy its hero.
The outstanding cast brings the story to life. Adir Miller, a stand-up comic and television writer, is both credible and witty as the brooding detective who is alternately threatening and reassuring.
Ori Hizkiah, another stand-up comedian, had never acted before when Nesher gave him the lead role of Arnav, but you would never guess that watching him here. He carries off a tricky role (if Arnav seemed dumb rather than naïve, then the whole movie would fall apart) with the aplomb of a born actor, and this is clearly just the beginning of his movie career.
Teen heartthrob Yehuda Levi is virtually unrecognizable as Rabbi Knafo. He is brilliant as the charismatic rabbi.
Yuval Scharf (who starred in Lost Islands and Footnote ) is appropriately gorgeous as the femme fatale, while singer Efrat Gosh is enjoyably quirky as the femme fatale’s polar opposite.
The Wonders is a moving, original and complex look at both the light and darkness at the heart of Jerusalem