A lovely ‘Fifth Heaven’

This Israeli film looks at World War II-era Israel from the vantage point of the staff and residents of a girls’ orphanage.

A lovely ‘Fifth Heaven’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A lovely ‘Fifth Heaven’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Fifth Heaven Hebrew title: Be’rakia Ha’hamishi.Directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis Written by Zvi-Riklis with Alma Ganihar, based on the novel by Rachel Eytan.Running time: 90 minutes.In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
A graceful, well-acted film, Dina Zvi-Riklis’s The Fifth Heaven looks back at World War II-era Israel from the vantage point of the staff and residents of a girls’ orphanage. Based on the novel by Rachel Eytan, the movie is both a coming-of-age drama from a female point of view and an unsentimental portrait of the hardships, realities and aspirations of the British Mandate period.
Looking back, many would like to think that life was simpler and that all Jews pulled together to help each other, but The Fifth Heaven explores the more complex reality.
It focuses on Maya (Amit Moshkovitz), who is brought to the orphanage in 1944. The girls are there because they have lost their parents in the dislocations of the recent past, but Maya moves there for a different reason: Her father doesn’t want her, since she is often in conflict with her stepmother.
Her mother is not dead but off in America and out of contact with the family. Maya’s loneliness is different from that of the other girls, and she feels isolated there.
There is some childish cruelty among the girls and a certain detachment on the part of the staff, but as Maya becomes absorbed into the routine of the place, she begins to fit in. A budding writer, her refuge is a lighted place on the roof, where she records a fabled version of her life in a journal.
The film also looks at the director of the orphanage, Dov Markovski (Yehezkel Lazarov), a complex man who still believes in the ideals of socialism and has a troubled relationship with Maya’s family. He is attracted to one of his coworkers, but his mind is obviously elsewhere. And while the orphanage may not be perfect, it is a safe haven for these girls because of his devotion to it.
When he has to, he grovels before Wolfson (Aki Avni, who makes a strong impression in this key role), a wealthy and cynical playboy whose family supports the orphanage. Markovski makes decisions based on compassion, including taking in Berta (Rotem Zissman-Cohen). She has been cast out by her religious family, and it turns out that she has angered them by dating a British officer.
The girls think of her as a great sophisticate, but she is a naïve and impulsive young woman who is utterly convinced that her married British lover will leave his wife for her.
In another subplot, one of the workers at the orphanage is engaged to a young man (Guy Adler) who is secretly stockpiling weapons at the orphanage for Lehi.
Amit Moshkovitz and Yehezkel Lazarov give wonderful performances in their leading roles, but the entire cast, down to the youngest orphans, are compelling and convincing. Lazarov is proving himself to be one of the most versatile (and certainly hardest working) Israeli actors, appearing in very different roles in the recent films Obsession and The World Is Funny.
This film was shown at the Haifa International Film Festival last year.
While it can be a bad sign when it takes more than a year for a film to be released, in this case it was clearly just a quirk in distribution.
The screenplay incorporates a lot of plot for one movie, and the story might have worked best as a television series, in which each of the themes could be explored more fully. Sometimes scenes are crammed so full of information, they don’t allow the characters time to develop. The heart of the film is Maya’s story and the interplay of the girls at the orphanage, and this is the most memorable and moving part of the film.
This movie definitely made me want to read the book, which was an autobiographical novel that won great acclaim when it was published in the early 1960s. That is perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay to any film that is a literary adaptation.