Letting Go

In ‘Restoration,’ a new award-winning Israeli film, characters are lit like Rembrandt subjects and exposed like Shakespearean characters.

Henry David, Nevo Kimhi Restoration 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Biran TIKSHORET)
Henry David, Nevo Kimhi Restoration 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Biran TIKSHORET)
AS “RESTORATION” OPENS, Yaakov Fidelman, a worldweary man in his sixties, is varnishing a piece of antique furniture in a dimly lit workshop in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood.
Fidelman’s hands move relentlessly, almost violently, as they work away at the aged wood. The camera dwells on his hands and face, suggesting the close proximity from which we will follow him throughout the unfolding story.
Shrouded in a dark, introspective Shakespearean atmosphere, the film (Hebrew title: “Boker Tov, Adon Fidelman”), reflects Israeli cinema’s recent move away from political topics and towards inwardlooking, character-driven dramas. And indeed, “Restoration,” winner of the Best Film Award at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival, is a finely detailed study of the struggle of Fidelman (played by Sasson Gabai) to let go of his past.
The plot is set in motion by the death of Malamud, Fidelman’s partner of many years.
Malamud, we learn, ran the financial side of the workshop and his business acumen kept it afloat. With his passing, the workshop is on the verge of bankruptcy. The ensuing drama revolves around Fidelman’s relentless efforts to hold on to his life’s work.
In trying to carry on, Fidelman is at odds with his son, Noah (Nevo Kimhi), with whom he has a detached relationship. Noah is an unsentimental lawyer, insensitive to his father’s craftsmanship and eager to sell the building to real estate developers.
But Fidelman gets unexpected support when Anton (Henry David), a mysterious young stranger, suddenly arrives at the workshop.
Anton is looking for work and Fidelman agrees to take him on as an apprentice.
The two develop a warm relationship, that of a father and his adopted son. Anton eventually comes up with a scheme that could save the business.
The ensuing sibling-like rivalry between Noah and Anton is further inflamed when Anton becomes romantically involved with Noah’s wife, Hava (Sara Adler), who is eight months pregnant.
The screenplay uses reflective cinematic language that gives the viewer ample opportunity to delve into characters that are both troubled and troubling. The film unravels slowly and deliberately, sometimes even tediously. But as Fidelman finally finds the courage to take decisive action, the story reaches a surprising yet cathartically satisfying ending.
THE CHARACTERS ARE INtriguing because of their complexity.
None are good or bad in a clear-cut way; all are flawed yet likable; and they all have manifold dimensions. The introverted and unsociable Fidelman is brusque in his family relationships, yet there is something compelling about his determination to hold onto a world that is slipping away from him.
Anton, who is on the run from someone or something that remains unrevealed, is an archetypal outsider who changes others while he himself remains the same. Like a cowboy riding into town in an old Western movie, he arrives in Fidelman’s world, stirs up trouble, creates a new order, and then vanishes into the horizon. He is a better son to Fidelman than Noah, yet he violates a basic taboo by becoming involved with Fidelman’s daughter-in-law.
Even the deceased Malamud, about whom we learn through clues he left behind, is a perplexing figure. Childless, he maintained a warm, fatherly relationship with Noah, who steps forward at the funeral to say the traditional kaddish prayer of mourning. Yet we learn through a cell-phone video recording that he had a once-a-week relationship with a prostitute, with whom he was having sex at the time of his death.
Fashioning characters in this multi-faceted way, director Joseph Madmony tells The Report, was fundamental to his concept of the film. “The more layers people have, the more interesting they are,” says Madmony, who collaborated with Erez Kav-El in the writing of the script, which earned the Best Screenplay Award at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival. The duality in the character of Fidelman, he notes, was a hotly debated subject during pre-production rehearsals between himself and Sasson Gabai, one of the country’s leading actors and winner of the 2007 European Film Award as Best Actor for his role in the “The Band’s Visit.”
“Sasson wanted to make Fidelman more likable, the kind of protagonist that an audience can readily identify with. But I felt it was important to maintain Fidelman’s dark side, “recalls Madmony, who is quick to add his admiration for Gabai. “And it’s a testament to Sasson’s acting talent that once we did agree on the characterization, he required little directing. He just turned into Fidelman.”
In order to further emphasize the internal world of the characters, Madmony used a lighting technique that he derived from studying the paintings of Rembrandt. “We tried to make it seem as if the light is coming from the faces of the figures, who are framed by darkness.”
Madmony’s skilled use of these poetic techniques combined with the riveting performances of the cast, especially Gabai’s sensitive portrayal of Fidelman, give “Restoration” a dramatic force that accounts for the critical recognition that it has received. Besides winning four awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival, “Restoration” also won the Crystal Globe Award as the best film at this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic.
In addition to combining virtues with vices among the film’s characters, Madmony also mixed actors with non-professionals. With the exception of the four lead actors, almost all of the cast are real people playing themselves.
“Non-actors add to a feeling of naturalism and help keep the professional actors in tune with the surroundings,” says Madmony, who also used authentic Tel Aviv settings for all of the locations. He notes that in one scene that takes place after Malamud’s funeral, the Elimelech restaurant is filled with the wellknown south Tel Aviv eatery’s regular visitors and the tribute to the memory of Malamud is made by Elimelech’s real-life owner.
Another non-professional actor played the part of the once-a-week prostitute. Madmony first saw her in a documentary. “She seemed right for the part, so we tracked her down and she agreed to take the role,” he recalls.
“Restoration” is the not the first time that Madmony has mixed real people with professional actors. In “Melanoma My Love,” a film that he directed in 2006 with David Ofek, he re-enacted the true story of a woman facing terminal cancer, as told from the point of view of her husband, actor Yigal Adika, who plays himself in the film.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN Madmony’s own life and the story of “Restoration,” he reveals, lies in the theme of the father-son relationship. “It has to do with a sad story that I grew up hearing my father tell about his relationship with his father,” says Madmony. “When my father was 16, he became a communist and he left home to join the Palmach [the pre-State fighting force], breaking away from the ultra-orthodox Yemenite ways of his father’s home. Later on in his life, he wanted to make amends with his father but by then it was too late, as his father had passed away.
“Though it’s not clear what will happen between Fidelman and his son in the film, there is the possibility that they will have an opportunity to give their relationship a second chance,” he says.
Madmony, 43, speaks in a soft and intense manner, accompanying almost everything he says with expressive hand gestures. He grew up in Jerusalem where he became enamored with cinema when the Jerusalem Cinematheque first opened in the early 1980s.
His gestures become especially animated as he reminisces about the films that made an early impression on him. “When I was 14, I started to watch the films of the great European filmmaking masters,” he recalls, noting that one of his most admired filmmakers was Italy’s neorealist director Vittorio de Sica. “His film ‘Umberto D.,’ which was made mainly with non-professional actors, is based on a hard-luck character threatened by eviction from his landlord that has some similarities to Fidelman.”
Madmony graduated in the early 1990s from Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television and has worked as a writer and director in the television and film industry ever since. He has written and co-directed several TV series, including the popular “Bat Yam – New York” and the less successful “Takeaway.”
Madmony notes that one of the toughest challenges in making “Restoration” was working within the confines of a limited budget of about $400,000. “Because we had to do all of the filming in just 20 days, we had to be very focused.”
During the shooting Madmony adhered closely to a carefully planned storyboard that laid out the composition of each shot and the way it would be lit. The film is remarkable for its extensive use of off-screen dialogue, a technique that emulates the impact of an introspective Shakespearian soliloquy. Indeed, many of the most dramatic moments in the film are conveyed through the characters’ reactions to what people around them are saying.
“The off-screen dialogue was an attempt to create an atmosphere of contemplation, to make it seem that the voices were coming out of the minds of the characters,” explains Madmony. He points out that he would seldom say ‘cut’ until at least ten seconds had passed after someone had stopped talking.
“Some of our main editing decisions were about how long to leave the camera lingering on a face.”
With the film currently showing in local movie theaters, Madmony points out that he would like to use the film as an opportunity to gain a different kind of recognition. Referring to his identification with the tent encampment demonstrators on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, he reveals a proposal he has made to the film’s distributors.
“I’d like to show it on a big screen in the Habima Theater courtyard at the top of Rothschild Boulevard as a tribute to the demonstrators. I was the head of the local screenwriters association for four years and I know what it’s like fighting for the rights of screenwriters and other workers. My heart is with them.” •