A family held hostage by a father's tragic past

In Hanan Peled's superb 'Dear Mr. Waldman,' a dutiful son forges a letter from the revered half-brother his father lost in the Holocaust

DEAR MR. WALDMAN 3.5 stars Written and directed by Hanan Peled. Hebrew title: Michtavim L'America. 90 minutes. In Hebrew, with English and Hebrew titles. With Rami Heuberger, Ido Port, Yavgenia Dodina, Roy Mayer, Evelyn Kaplun, Dov Glikman, Ela Armoni Well-written and superbly acted, Dear Mr. Waldman treads ground that will be familiar to anyone used to seeing Israeli movies or reading Israeli novels. It's a coming-of-age story set in the Sixties that deals with a boy's attempt to console his father, a Holocaust survivor who is grieving over the loss of his family in World War II. While at times the pathos threatens to overwhelm the drama, the vividly drawn characters manage to remind the audience that these are real people trying their best to cope with overwhelming problems, and not the stereotypes we've seen too many times in lesser dramas. Although the son, Hilik (Ido Port), is the narrator of the story, it is his father, Moishe (Rami Heuberger), who is at the story's center. Moishe has made a new life for himself in Israel, where he owns and runs a print shop in Tel Aviv with his friend, Froyeke (Dov Glikman), a wheeler dealer who keeps trying to get the reluctant Moishe to invest in his business schemes. Moishe's bond with Froyeke is in some ways deeper than his relationship with his wife, Rivka (Yavgenia Dodina), because it was Froyeke who saved his life during the war. Moishe is depressive and often takes to his bed, looking over and over at the one photo he has of his dead wife and child. His longing for his lost family isn't easy on the one he actually has, naturally. Rivka, an extremely pragmatic woman, has pretty much given up trying to make her husband face reality and instead focuses on the only one of Froyeke's deals that makes sense, buying a plot of land in the sand dunes that will become Holon. Yonatan (Roy Mayer), the oldest child, loses himself in reading, and his only real contact with his father comes through the books Moishe brings him from the print shop. But it is Hilik, the younger son who loves movies and is obsessed with Spartacus, who desperately wants his father's happiness and approval. A boy who understands without being told that his impossible mission is to make his parents happy, Hilik is the most frustrated that he can never measure up to Yankele, his dead half-brother. When Moishe sees a newspaper article about Jack Waldman, a young advisor to US President John F. Kennedy, he becomes convinced that this young man is his long-lost Yankele. Moishe writes to him and begins to live in a fantasy world, telling himself that since he didn't actually see his son die - although, as Rivka reminds him at every turn, several others did - Yankele may well be alive and living in Washington. Moishe begins to talk about going to Washington to visit Yankele, and in a misguided attempt to keep his family together, Hilik forges a letter, supposedly from Jack Waldman, giving just enough information to confirm Moishe's wildest hopes. The fallout from Hilik's forgery is more or less what you'd expect. In spite of this built-in predictability, though, the movie is never boring. The sadness and tragedy on the screen are too real to be dull. Although a slightly upbeat ending feels a little forced, it is to veteran screenwriter Hanan Peled's credit that he manages to nudge his characters out of the past and into a future that is not so bleak. The film's performances are uniformly outstanding. Rami Heuberger gives one of the best leading performances I've ever seen in an Israeli film as the emotionally wounded father. Yavgenia Dodina, the celebrated stage actress who began her career in Russia, is pitch-perfect as the mother who can seem cold but is simply adept at survival. It's the kind of naturalistic, lowkey acting that is easy to overlook because it feels so real. Dov Glikman is almost too believable as the oily Froyeke, while Ido Port is one of the few young Israeli actors who speaks and acts like a child, rather than an undersized 40-year-old. The excellent production design and costumes prove that Israeli film has truly come of age in this area. Although the subject may be one you'd prefer not to revisit, Dear Mr. Waldman brings it to life with style and intelligence.