Arrested development

The Israeli film ‘Intimate Grammar’ fails ‘the bus test’ but gets high marks for care and thought

roee elsberg311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
roee elsberg311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
INTIMATE GRAMMER (ISR) Directed by Nir Bergman. Written by Bergman, based on the novel by David Grossman. 110 minutes. Hebrew title: Ha’dikduk Ha’pnimi. In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar, based on the novel by David Grossman, came to the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer heralded by a positive buzz and generated a great deal of anticipation. While it would be unfair to call it a disappointment – it ultimately won the competition there for Best Israeli Feature, and it was unquestionably the best of the bunch, although it was a notably weak year – much of it just misses the mark. The film is often moving and funny, but it drags in spots, and a few elements don’t quite work.
Set in a Jerusalem neighborhood in the 1960s in which the neighbors know each other all too well, it tells the story of Aharon (Roee Elsberg), a sensitive preteen who is so repulsed and frightened by the world around him, that he stops growing. Before you can say “The Tin Drum,” his peers are all towering over him. The child in that novel was rebelling against fascism, but in this case Aharon has grown up in a house with two mismatched and angry parents who rarely show him any love or affection.
His mother, Hinda (Orly Silbersatz), is the prototype of what New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once described a mother as an “anti-life monster.” Hinda is graceless, charmless and filled with rage, screaming out all her complaints about her husband and his senile mother who lives with them. His father, Moshe (Yehuda Almagor), is quietly resentful, but when he’s stressed, he beats Aharon.
The one sympathetic member of his family is his sister, Yochi (Yael Sgerski), who is kind and imaginative. How did such cold and cruel parents raise such gentle kids? Aharon has friends at school and there’s a girl he likes, but she loses interest in him because he doesn’t go for all the youth group activities. One bright spot is the beautiful and mysterious Edna (Evelyn Kaplun), who lives upstairs.
She had a very different life before she came to Israel, and her apartment is filled with art and music, much different from Aharon’s cramped quarters.
The whole film is done with care and thought, but it makes little impact. This is probably due to two factors. One, it’s material that has become quite familiar. Every second Israeli movie is a coming-of-age story. Avi Nesher’s Once I Was, renamed The Matchmaker, which was released in early summer, covers similar ground but does so in a far more cinematically effective manner and avoids some of the slightly mildewed concepts here. The idea of using a boy’s arrested development as a metaphor for sensitivity got old years ago. It worked better in the context of Grossman’s novel, which was an intimate portrait of a fascinating child’s mind.
The other problem is Orly Silbersatz’s performance. She very effectively creates an utterly unlikable character, but she’s so unpleasant, that I found myself wincing whenever she walked into a scene. I had the same reaction to her in Bergman’s first feature film, Broken Wings, in which she also played an angry, frustrated mother, and in Lost Islands, where she played basically this same role.
There is one scene, meant to soften Hinda, in which she apologizes to her son for all the cruelty, explaining that she, a Holocaust survivor, grew up cut off from her family and normal society. But it fell flat with me – I still hated her.
Ronit Elkabetz manages to play deeply flawed heroines but still seduces audiences into loving her (or loving to hate her). But due to Silbersatz’s performance, this movie fails what I call “the bus test.” If I were to sit next to these characters on a bus, would I become fascinated as I eavesdropped on their conversation or would I move to a part of the bus where I couldn’t hear them? If Silbersatz were on board, I would definitely move as far away as I could.
The scenes with Evelyn Kaplun, who gives what may be her finest performance ever, are the best part. These moments illustrate the child’s longing for a better world (embodied by Kaplun) and the lost and mysterious world of Europe. Elsberg gives a relaxed and natural performance in a very demanding lead role. Bergman is a disciplined and talented director, and there is much to enjoy here. It’s certainly a good film, if not a great one.