A confusing obsession: ‘Longing’ makes you wish for more

Longing features a strong cast, but it is an overly literal, often mawkish and unfocused film.

Longing by Savi Gabizon (photo credit: EYTAN RIKLIS)
Longing by Savi Gabizon
(photo credit: EYTAN RIKLIS)
Shai Avivi, who gave such a touching performance as a grieving father in One Week and a Day, plays a similar role in Savi Gabizon’s latest film, Longing. But Avivi’s fine work in the new movie only invites unfortunate comparisons.
Longing features a strong cast, but it is an overly literal, often mawkish and unfocused film that reads like a rough draft for a story that could have been much more interesting. Granted, I saw it in the context of the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer, alongside movies that took on far more urgent and intriguing subjects, such as poverty and how the schools can both inspire and fail students (Scaffolding and Doubtful); the absurdity of life in a Christian Arab village (Holy Air); or a tragic love story (The Cakemaker). To my surprise, Longing won the Anat Pirchi Award for Best Screenplay at the JFF, and to my even greater surprise, it won the Audience Award at the recent Venice Film Festival.
Gabizon is an accomplished and assured director who has made enjoyable movies in the past, notably Nina’s Tragedies, the 2003 movie that brought its star Ayelet Zurer international acclaim. He definitely works well with actors. In addition to Avivi, the Longing cast includes Neta Riskin (Shtisel) and Assi Levy (Aviva My Love).
Longing opens as former lovers Ariel (Avivi) and Ronit (Levy) are having lunch. A workaholic businessman, Ariel lost touch with Ronit years ago after they broke up. But she has come to reveal a secret that will rock his world: They had a son together and that boy, in his late teens, has just died. Ariel visits his son’s grave and bonds with another grieving parent, Gideon (Yoram Toledano), who blames himself for his teenage daughter’s suicide. Ariel also delves into his son’s life, befriending his friends, including his pregnant girlfriend. At this point, it seems that the film will be about the conflict between his desire to idealize his son and the reality that his son was human and flawed.
Next, Ariel learns that his son had an obsessive love for his teacher, Yael (Riskin), and that the boy’s mother blames her for not handling the situation well. As the father gets to know the teacher, it looks as if he will fall in love with this beautiful young woman, who is somewhere between Ariel’s age and his son’s. But just when this plot seems to get going, it is more or less dropped, and Ariel begins to focus on a strange plan to get the father of the girl who committed suicide to agree to a “marriage” between the two dead young people.
The plot thread that is the most perplexing is Ariel’s fierce desire to stage a wedding between the deceased teens. At times, it seems it is being played for laughs, while at other times it seems we are meant to admire this, that it is a magnificent obsession.
Longing seems stranded, too slick and insubstantial to be an art house movie but too depressing and dark to be any fun. Here and there, some dialogue reveals a little bit about Ariel’s life before he learned he had a son, but none of it adds up to a coherent portrait, so we’re left to spend a lot of time with a cipher. There are some directorial flourishes, such as when Ariel has a fantasy in which the teacher is giant and nude. But none of the bells and whistles change the fact that Longing presents a meandering story about a man we don’t get to know well enough to care about. The script isn’t awful, just pedestrian.
The actors do their best to cover up the weaknesses in the plot and conception of the film, but there is only so much they can do. In addition to Avivi, Riskin is particularly appealing, and I wish that both of them had more to work with.