Alice's (mis)adventures in parenthood

Dana Goldberg’s new film touches on the taboo topic of being an unresponsive mother.

July 3, 2013 14:56
3 minute read.
Scene from the film 'Alice'

Scene from the film 'Alice'. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Dana Goldberg’s Alice is an intelligent and thoughtful film about a mother who cannot connect to her child and gets little pleasure from her family life. The story is buoyed and brought to life by Ilanit Ben- Yaakov’s brilliantly nuanced performance in the title role. Ben-Yaakov won the Best Actress award at the 2012 Jerusalem Film Festival, and the film won an honorable mention and an award for Best Screenplay. One of the strengths of the film is that it features an unusual work setting – Alice is a counselor in charge of the night shift at a boarding school for mentally ill/delinquent teen girls – that counterpoints her discontent at home and adds to her pain.

Alice is in her late 30s and lives in an anonymous suburb with her husband, Yigal (Haim Znati), a plumber, and her nine-year-old son, Eli (Itai Naveh). But since she works nights, she is usually asleep when they are home and makes no particular effort to rouse herself so she can spend time with them.

Her work is draining, since she is in charge of a group of manipulative, emotionally needy girls, many of whom have mental illnesses. On the job, Alice must project authority and confidence at all times or the girls will sense her weaknesses and engage in all kinds of forbidden behavior. While Alice barely has the energy to pay attention to her sweet, well-behaved son in the most basic ways, at night she is virtually a mother to more than a dozen of the most complex and difficult girls anyone could imagine.

She copes with the stress of reconciling her natural passivity and depression with the need to face these girls with energy and selfconfidence in an unsurprising way: She is having an affair with a coworker, Yoel (Amos Shouv). When they think the girls are asleep, they sneak off to have sex. The sex is passionate, but for Alice it’s clearly something more. She reads to him from her journal and confides in him. In the back of her mind, she hopes the affair will change her life and turn it around.

But the romance distracts her. She becomes even less available at home and is less focused and alert with the girls. She gets into conflicts with the girls and becomes involved with trying to keep two of them, Neta (Darya Sheizaf) and Vered (Neta Bar- Refael), from having a sexual relationship which is both against the rules and destructive to the girls, who are so needy that this connection could be damaging to them in the long run.

To reflect Alice’s depressed mental state, Goldberg has shot the film in muted color. While this decision is artistically sound, it makes the film even more unrelentingly bleak. While Alice is brilliantly acted, well written and meticulously directed, it is certainly not for all audiences.

However, it does raise the important subject of a mother having a hard time connecting with her child, which is perhaps the most taboo of all topics in modern Israeli discourse. While there is a certain awareness about post-partum depression, anything more complex than a few bouts of weeping in the first month of motherhood is not something women are encouraged to discuss. The pressure to be fruitful and multiply, even among secular Jews, is so pervasive in Israel that most Israelis probably have no idea how overwhelming this pressure can be to someone who does not feel confident that she can give love to a child. A woman like Alice might not have been pushed to the breaking point if she had never had a child. While she did not necessarily make the wrong decision by having her son, it is extremely difficult for her to ask for the help she needs to be a good mother to him. The most searing moments in the movie come when Alice realizes how much he needs her and cannot respond to him.

Goldberg depicts this tragic conflict masterfully. Those who are not put off by this film’s sadness will be rewarded by its intelligence.

Written and directed by Dana Goldberg.
With Ilanit Ben-Yaakov, Haim Znati, Itai Naveh, Amos Shouv
Hebrew title: Alice
Running time 82 minutes.
In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.

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