The duo behind ‘The Dinner’ speaks on their decades-long partnership

The Dinner, which opens in Israel on June 15, is based on a novel by Dan Redler and tells parallel stories of a well-educated Russian immigrant couple in Tel Aviv.

 ARIK LUBETZKI (left) and Matti Harari on the set of ‘The Dinner.’  (photo credit: COURTESY OF THE DINNER)
ARIK LUBETZKI (left) and Matti Harari on the set of ‘The Dinner.’
(photo credit: COURTESY OF THE DINNER)

There are many movie-directing duos who are brothers, and while Matti Harari and Arik Lubetzki, directors of the new Israeli movie, The Dinner, are not related by blood, they are the kind of old friends who might as well be. 

They have known each other since childhood and they have that kind of finishing-each-other’s-sentences closeness where it’s clear they have each other’s backs. In an industry where feuds are common, they have managed to forge a lasting partnership. 

The Dinner, which opens in Israel on June 15, is based on a novel by Dan Redler, and tells parallel stories of a well-educated Russian immigrant couple in Tel Aviv (played by Oleg Levin and Yulia Tagil) who are struggling to get by; they become involved, by chance, with a well-to-do but disaffected Israeli-born married couple (Keren Peles and Oded Menaster), a connection that has surprising and ultimately tragic consequences. 

In an interview just ahead of the opening of The Dinner, the directors spoke about what inspired them to make the movie, and the shared ideals and passions that have kept their partnership going. 

Compelling storylines in the original book

They were both drawn to Redler’s novel, a lengthy book that had a number of storylines. One of the key ones, said Lubetzki, was inspired by the time a Russian man was working as a cleaner in the author’s home and looked at his books about theater. They started talking and it turned out that the cleaner had been a theater director in Russia, which set the author thinking about what day-to-day life would be like for a man in that situation. The directors also found this storyline especially compelling. 

 YULIA TAGIL (left) and Oleg Levin, from the movie ‘The Dinner.’  (credit: COURTESY OF UNITED KING FILMS)
YULIA TAGIL (left) and Oleg Levin, from the movie ‘The Dinner.’ (credit: COURTESY OF UNITED KING FILMS)

Eventually, said Harari, “we decided to focus on the connection between a struggling immigrant couple and a well-to-do Israeli couple. While the immigrant couple’s life is very hard, the better-off couple has many problems. This story reflects problems in society, where the country wants to attract immigrants, but once they actually arrive, it doesn’t know how to handle them and how to help them. And the state disappears from the picture. Every wave of aliyah has this problem and it very much touched our hearts.”

All of the actors give wonderful performances, but Levin and Tagil are standouts as the immigrant couple in turmoil. Lubetzki said Levin was able to draw on some of his own and his father’s experiences as immigrants in Israel when making the film. 

Through a complex set of circumstances, the connection between the two couples leads to a misunderstanding that convinces the Russian husband that his wife is cheating on him, even though she loves him deeply, destroying what is left of the husband’s self-confidence and bringing him to the point of desperation. 

“What attracted me is that gray area, when you think you know another person, but there is always a mystery about them,” Lubetzki said. “ And the second thing was, when a person feels he lacks value, what extremes does it push him to and how much can we identify with him when he is pushed to these extremes? 

“These are both universal themes and they inspired my personal identification with the stories from the book. When someone is pushed to an extreme and does something horrible, you can still identify with him if you understand him. That’s what I like about the story, that it’s not black and white.” 

The two directors made cult series in the nineties

THE COMPLEX themes at the heart of the movie are very much in keeping with the directors’ other works. The two, who have been friends since elementary school, were into sports before they became interested in filmmaking; eventually, both found their way to Tel Aviv University, although they studied different years. 

But they were clear about wanting to work together. So just out of film school, they made two successful television series in the 1990s – at a time when original Israeli shows were rare – that have become, “cult series,” Lubetzki said. 

Working for the Hot television network, they made the series Jaffa Pictures, about criminals in Jaffa, and Youthful Dreams, about a high-school filmmaking class, for the then-brand-new Channel 2. Producer Dana Eden, who has gone on to produce such shows as Tehran, was able to sell Youthful Dreams to more than 40 countries, including to prestigious channels in France and Australia. Jaffa Pictures will be having a reboot soon. 

Lubetzki and Harari went on to collaborate on a number of movies, 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, new immigrants and others.

“We have made movies with themes before about the acceptance of the other, we have made a movie about a Holocaust survivor and a worker from Poland,” Lubetzki said. “In Apples from the Desert, we dealt with being different – not from the point of view of a foreigner, but of an ultra-Orthodox person on a kibbutz. The motif of the stranger is there.”

Harari noted that while there are common themes in their work, their movies are very different in tone and genre. “We’ve made crime movies and thrillers. One is about the Holocaust and one is about haredim. It’s fun to look at these worlds and figure out how to describe and understand them,” he said. “It’s like going on a trip to Lapland and you see how Eskimos live. You go on a trip to Jerusalem and you see how haredim live. You go into the alleys of the crime world and you see how criminals live. No matter what the genre is, we look at the truth of human nature.”

THE DINNER was filmed before the coronavirus pandemic, but just as it was about to go to film festivals, the crisis hit. It competed in some and won awards, but it was difficult, since many of these festivals were only online and there were others that the directors could not travel to.

As they told these stories, it became especially clear how their partnership sustained them through all these obstacles. When they spoke, some disagreements came up about their perceptions of the most important themes in their movies, and about facts such as precisely how successful Russian immigrants as a group have been in Israel. They each made their cases strongly, then worked it out, which gave me a glimpse into the mechanics of their working partnership. 

“When you make movies, it’s always against all odds,” Harari said, “and a theme in our movies is that we understand the kind of person who doesn’t give up, who goes all the way in spite of the odds.”