The lives of two very different Israeli couples intersect in The Dinner, the latest film by the directing duo Matti Harari and Arik Lubetzki, and it’s a well-made and beautifully acted slice of Israeli life.
This movie makes it clear that while those outside Tel Aviv sometimes refer to life in that city as “the bubble” – meaning an isolated place where many live a bourgeois, liberal, wealthy life, disconnected from much of the rest of Israel – Tel Aviv is really many different bubbles. Those living in each world generally stay separate from the others, but when they do get together, the results can be unpredictable.
Based on a novel by Dan Redler, the parallel stories are about the haves and the have-nots, those who are bored with their lives and look for something to give them meaning, and those who struggle simply to get by, even though they are no less intelligent or well educated.
The struggle of immigrants
The struggling couple are fairly recent immigrants from Russia, Gregori (Oleg Levin) and Emma (Yulia Tagil). Back home, Gregori was an engineer, but he struggles with Hebrew and has lost his confidence, eking out a living as a security guard at a mall and at clubs. Emma has a doctorate in literature, and her thesis was on the impact of Communism on Russian literature, but in Tel Aviv the only job she can find is trying to sign up people on the street for a new telephone service. She has to fight just to get what most Israelis would consider a crummy job in telemarketing. They want to have children, but can barely pay their rent, and their little parakeet is as close as they can come to raising a child.
Yael (singer Keren Peles, making her acting debut here) is a therapist who can’t solve her own problems. She is bored with her marriage to Alon (Oded Menaster), a hi-tech entrepreneur who is trying to open his mind by taking a painting class. She has an ongoing flirtation with their heavy-drinking slacker friend (Ishai Golan) and misses her son, who has left Israel, probably for good, to go to film school abroad.
Yael and Alon reminded me of the main characters of the recently released Nicole Holofcener dramedy, You Hurt My Feelings, also about a malcontented bourgeois couple, one of whom is a therapist, although Yael and Alon are less sympathetic than the characters in that American film, since they are less aware of their own shortcomings and don’t have the ability to laugh at themselves.
These two couples would not even have a nodding acquaintance, were it not for an unusual set of circumstances. Emma loses her job with the telemarketer due to fighting back against sexual harassment and takes a job as a nude model for the art class Alon happens to be taking. She conceals the loss of the job from her husband and is sure he would not approve of her modeling. Alon is drawn to Emma, in both a sexual and artistic way, and offers her money to pose for him privately. She takes him up on his offer, still concealing the fact from Gregori, who picks up clues that she is not being truthful. A coincidence in their lives further complicates the story.
WHILE ALL the acting is excellent, Levin and Tagil are the standouts as the immigrant couple, and they make the story’s ultimate tragedy especially affecting. Levin, who has a key role in the television series Carthago, has often played Russian bad guys who are basically one-dimensional. But in a complex role like this, he gets to shine and really show his talent. You can see in his eyes that anger has been building up inside Gregori for years as he struggles to keep it down, and every slight and insult he suffers brings it closer to the surface. Tagil, a respected stage actress, projects a quality of wistfulness and resilience in the face of crushing odds that is so winning that it’s easy to understand why a man like Alon would become obsessed with her, in spite of his beautiful wife at home.
Harari and Lubetzki have collaborated as directors on a number of movies and television series, among them Apples from the Desert, Black Jack and The Last Suspect. They tend to look at different worlds in each movie: a haredi young woman moving to a kibbutz; gangsters; Holocaust survivors; and others.
In The Dinner, the details of the characters’ lives feel very real. But while the whole point of the story is to show how these two couples’ worlds collide, I kept wishing – and I think many viewers will wish – that the story had focused on the Russian couple. I was so caught up in their struggle and wanted to understand even more about them and their lives, and I found the privileged Israeli couple more familiar and less interesting. It was Gregori and Emma who kept me engaged until the movie’s final moments.