‘Seven Blessings’ tells the story of twisted family tradition - review

Seven Blessings focuses on a Moroccan family in Israel and shows how tradition can be used in a particularly twisted and damaging way.

 SCENE FROM ‘Seven Blessings.’ (photo credit: United King Films/Maria Brodkin)
SCENE FROM ‘Seven Blessings.’
(photo credit: United King Films/Maria Brodkin)

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums had the tagline “Family isn’t a word. It’s a sentence,” and I thought of that when I watched Seven Blessings, which opens on Thursday.

Directed by Ayelet Menahemi, with a script by its star, Reymonde Amsallem, and Eleanor Sela, also an actress in the movie, Seven Blessings focuses on a Moroccan family in Israel and shows how tradition can be used in a particularly twisted and damaging way.

An expected hit at the Ophir Awards

The movie, which is expected to be the big winner at the Ophir Awards on September 10, opens and closes with a framing device of a dapper and rather jaunty elderly man (Sylvain Biegeleisen), who is hard of hearing, talking about repentance and Yom Kippur, setting the scene for a story about sin, suffering, and forgiveness.

It turns out he is a guest at a wedding in Israel in the ’90s. Marie (Amsallem), who has been living in France for years and has a career there as a high-powered banking executive, has come home to Israel to marry her French-Jewish fiancé, Dan (Eran Mor).

It’s a large, festive wedding and everyone looks their best, but something odd happens right away. Usually, the bride is escorted by her parents, but her father is no longer alive, so instead of being escorted to the huppah only by her mother, Hana (Tikva Dayan), Marie is walked down the aisle by Hana and a woman she calls Mama Gracia (Rivka Bahar).

Film festival (Illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)
Film festival (Illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)

The wedding is followed by the “Seven Blessings” of the title, a week of celebratory meals to honor the bride given every night for a week by different family members. As the days go by, there are moments of joy, but they are eclipsed by an undercurrent, which often breaks to the surface, of tension and anger.

This is a large family, and everyone has a story to tell, but the central plot is about why Marie looks so pained to be back home.

The first hint of the explanation comes as Hana cooks a meat dish that she is sure will delight her daughter, but Gracia reminds her that Marie is a vegetarian and has been for years. How could Gracia, who turns out to be her aunt, know this, while her mother has forgotten?

Slowly, the story comes out. Hana had many children, but Gracia was barren. So back when the family still lived in Morocco, when Marie was two, Hana gave her to her sister and brother-in-law, to be raised as their own. Hana saw this as a gesture of kindness to her sister, whose husband could have divorced her because they did not have children, and apparently this was common practice in Morocco. Marie bonded with Gracia, whom she came to see as her mother. But when Marie was older, she was sent back to live in Hana’s crowded home. Marie, who had had her own room at Gracia’s, was given special treatment by Hana, who wanted her to have the kind of conditions she was used to as an only child. Not surprisingly, this created resentment among her siblings.

This was all done in the name of trying to do good in a culture that was not psychologically minded, but it created incalculable trauma in Marie, which she tries to explain to her new husband, an incredibly gentle Ashkenazi who is initially as bewildered as the audience is.

All these characters who dealt with this switch have accumulated enough psychic damage to fill a lifetime of therapy sessions, but these are not people who go to therapists. They deal with the trauma by repressing it or by letting their anger come out inappropriately. Throughout the movie, nearly every laugh leads to tears, and every smile to a grimace.

There are some laughs along the way of course, some of them about the generation gap, and some about Marie’s husband’s Ashkenazi family and how his parents try to fit in with their Mizrahi in-laws. But as the movie plays out in claustrophobic scenes in crowded apartments and later in a coda set in the near future, it’s the heavy drama that predominates.

THE MOVIE is at its best when Marie, as well as her mother and her aunt, get to talk about what this difficult story meant to them. As secrets are revealed and grievances aired, we learn that while women in this culture rule in the kitchen, they are often frustrated by their second-class status, which makes them miserable. Hana enjoyed playing God in a certain way, which gave her some power, while Marie points out that it is always girls who were given away like this, never boys.

Menahemi, who also made the movies Tel Aviv Stories and Noodle, is great with actors, many of whom tend to give the best performances of their careers for her. The supporting cast is amazing, and the two older women, Tikva Dayan (whom audiences will remember from countless roles, among them Sima Vaknin Witch) and Rivka Bahar, give deeply felt performances, where you come to understand why their characters made every decision. Amsallem is one of Israel’s leading actresses, and she has appeared in such movies as Seven Minutes in Heaven, where she played a terror victim fighting to get her life back on track, and Three Mothers. In Seven Blessings, she gives one of the best performances of her career, and she may well win her first Ophir Award for Best Actress for this role.

The most famous quote from Tolstoy is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is a fascinating thought, and it might be true under most circumstances, but Tolstoy did not go to Israeli movies. There are certainly patterns to unhappiness to be gleaned from Israeli cinema, particularly to the stories of unhappy Moroccan families. The trilogy of movies about a Moroccan family by the late Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, come to mind.

Seven Blessings does find a twist in its portrayal of this unusual situation; and ultimately, buoyed by the performances, it’s an impressive and compelling story of women struggling to right past wrongs and move forward.