Worth seeing at least ‘Once’

In the shadow of the Holocaust, a boy, a matchmaker and a quirky cast of characters light up Avi Nesher’s coming-of-age story.

once i was 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
once i was 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
ONCE I WAS (ISR)****Directed by Avi Nesher. Written by Nesher and inspired by a book by Amir Gutfreund. Hebrew title: Pa’am Hi’iti. 112 minutes. In Hebrew, check with theaters for subtitle information
Once I Was, Avi Nesher’s latest film, is the first movie in years with a fresh take on the familiar themes of a boy’s coming-of-age and the shadow the Holocaust casts on Israel. This immensely pleasurable and moving film manages to weave the many strands of its plot to create a portrait of Israel in 1968 that sheds light on the country today, and does so without sacrificing drama to polemics. What shines forth are the characters and the story, and in the end nothing else in the movie really matters. You may not even notice that Avi Nesher has made a complex and ambitious film, one of the most rewarding in Israel in years.
The film focuses on Arik Burstein (Tuval Shafir), a Haifa teen who wants to fit in and dreams of nothing more unusual than becoming a war hero. His father is a Holocaust survivor, but that isn’t something anyone ever talks about, and it isn’t anything Arik is very interested in, anyway. He prefers to hang out with his friend, Beni, and read detective novels. And he’s very interested in Tamara (Neta Porat), Beni’s rebellious cousin who has grown up in America and talks about free love, rock ‘n’ roll and women’s rights.
When Arik gets a summer job working as a kind of detective for a matchmaker, Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), he finds himself in a new world, but one at times uncomfortably close to home. Yankele, a scarred and mysterious figure, knew his father in Romania and is also a survivor. Devoting himself to matchmaking, Yankele says he “specializes in special [needs] people.”
Because of their childhood connection, Arik’s father allows him to descend to the “Lower City,” the sleazy downtown area near the port. There, he meets the dwarves (seven of them, in fact) who run a movie theater that only shows love stories (in fact, there really was such a theater and the dwarves survived Auschwitz because Dr. Mengele experimented on them). Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), one of these dwarves, has hired Yankele to find her a husband, and is impatient. Meir (Dror Keren), the librarian, also turns to Yankele for help finding a partner, but gets sidetracked by Clara (Maya Dagan), a tragic and glamorous figure who is a kind of Marilyn Monroe of the port area. The director sets all these characters in motion and they become more intensely involved in each other’s lives.
While this film may have familiar elements, it’s frequently surprising.Nesher, who became famous in 1979 with The Troupe(Ha Lahaka), doesn’t go for easy resolutions here. One of the mostinteresting elements is the light he sheds on the disgust and distastemany Israelis felt towards the survivors in their midst, even whenthose survivors were their parents. We’ve seen many films aboutsurvivors and their secrets, but fewer about children who are terrifiedto uncover what they think their parents are hiding. As he did in histwo previous films, Turn Left at the End of theWorld (which was the highest grossing film domestically ever)and The Secrets, he lets us get engrossed in aparticular world, but brings out the universal aspects of that worldand draws us in.
This summary makes the film sound heavier than it is. There is a lot ofhumor here, and even some real comedy. The scenes in the downtown areahave a raffish charm, and bring to mind the atmosphere in old noirmovies (although the film features vivid, gorgeous color). Arik’searnest quest to become a writer is the most shopworn element here, butit isn’t given the hard sell and so doesn’t grate. The outstandingacting is what most people will remember when they leave the theater.The film is a breakthrough for Adir Miller, best known as a televisioncomedian, who had his first dramatic role in Nesher’s TheSecrets. Maya Dagan, Bat El Papura, Dror Keren, and Dov Navonalso do stellar work here. The younger actors are relaxed and natural,although Porat and Shafir have an odd resemblance that makes them lookalmost like brother and sister in some of their scenes together.
Even if you’ve sworn off movies about the legacy of the Holocaust, makean exception and see this one, which offers varied and unexpectedpleasures.