Movie Review: A film worth leaving home for?

‘Phobodilia’ ponders our relationships to spaces that are outside our control: What drives people to shut themselves in?

Phobodilia 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Phobodilia 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Directed by Doron Paz and Yoav Paz. Written by the Paz brothers. Based on a novel by Yizhar Har-Lev. 87 minutes. Hebrew title: Phobidilia. In Hebrew and English, check with theaters for English titles.
It’s hard to make an engaging movie about a creepy, alienated person, but the directing team of brothers Doron and Yoav Paz have tried their best with Phobidilia. While the film features wonderful acting and some insights into modern life (and modern men), it’s a difficult film to sit through and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
Ofer Shechter won a well-deserved acting award at the Haifa Film Festival last fall for his performance as the anti-hero of the film, a young man who suffers from agoraphobia and never leaves his apartment. Things being what they are these days, all his needs are met there. He does some kind of work via the Internet, orders in food and kitty litter (he has a cat), and gets sexual satisfaction via the porn he watches on the computer. His television is on around the clock. He used to leave his building, although, the film suggests, not a lot. The twist is that he doesn’t see his condition as a problem to be overcome.
He’s perfectly happy, until the day that the elderly man he calls Grumps (Shlomo Bar-Shavit), the agent for the apartment’s owner, tells him he must move out. This strikes fear into his heart and spurs him to action. He makes the apartment especially messy and acts strange when Grumps brings tenants to see it. Around the same time, he gets a visit from Daniela (Efrat Baumwold), a young woman who is taking surveys for a media corporation. She befriends him, although the gloomy protagonist doesn’t seem particularly happy about her overtures, but in keeping with his passive-aggression, he doesn’t completely ignore them. Soon, she is proposing to him that they have sex, an offer he finds easy to refuse at first. After all, he has his dream girl on the Internet, who chats with him, undresses, and will go away at the click of a mouse (as long as his credit card is valid).
Daniela’s sudden and intense interest seems a bit implausible. Her willingness to put up with his craziness and his sullen acceptance of her attention raised questions in my mind that I doubt the filmmakers intended about how much easier dating is for men (he doesn’t even have to leave his apartment to have a woman throwing herself at him, while she has no problem with a man who can’t even meet her in a coffee shop).
The fantasy scenes in which she creates images for him of the two of them romping in flower-laden fields are banal and slow down the movie, which is only 87 minutes, but drags in several spots. The confrontation between Daniela and his Internet fantasy woman didn’t add much, and the parallels between the hero’s life and Grumps’ Holocaust experiences of Grumps (he spent the war years hiding out in a ditch) were similarly obvious.
What works in the movie, and some of it does work brilliantly, is the well-observed portrait of a man who has retreated from all challenges, into the safety of a media-saturated refuge where nothing is demanded of him. Don’t we all know people whose lives are going in that direction? And don’t most of us have a couch-potato side that wants to take refuge from the world? Part of what is creepy about the hero is the ways in which he just an exaggerated version of the rest of us. In Japan, the phenomenon of these (mostly) male, young shut-ins is called hikikomori, and it has been dramatized in numerous films, notably Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s contribution to the omnibus film, Tokyo! , in which a shut-in falls for a girl delivering pizzas when she takes shelter in his apartment during an earthquake.
Toward the end, as the main character looks back at his childhood andpinpoints what drove him inward, he becomes more sympathetic, butduring much of the film, his bizarre behavior is obviously andpurposefully off-putting. I wish the filmmakers had been able to createa few more surprises in this film. There are moments of real wit hereand others when I really felt for the hero and could see that he wassuffering and not merely self-absorbed. Like Danny Lerner’s Frozen Days and Walls,Doron Paz and Yoav Paz create a self-contained world here, in the midstof Tel Aviv, but while it’s a place we may recognize, it’s not a placewe’ll want to spend much time.