Teacher’s pet

In the film "Mrs. Moskowitz and the Cats," an elderly former French instructor finds love in an unlikely environment.

mrs moskowitz and the cats (photo credit: Courtesy)
mrs moskowitz and the cats
(photo credit: Courtesy)
MRS. MOSKOWITZ AND THE CATSDirected by Jorge Gurvich.
Written by Gurvich and Yoav Katz, based on a novel by Yehoshua Kenaz.
Hebrew title: B’Derech La Hatulim. 83 minutes.
In Hebrew, check with theaters for subtitle information.
Jorge Gurvich’s film Mrs. Moskowitz and the Cats is an engaging and heartfelt movie on a subject most people would prefer not to think about: the elderly. But as he takes us inside the world of a spirited Tel Aviv woman – who is shaken out of her safe and solitary existence after a fall lands her in a convalescent hospital – there are more than a few surprises and pleasures.
Although the subject may sound grim, the film is anything but. It plays like an urban fairy tale about the blossoming of a princess, and the fact that she is an older woman doesn’t dim her vibrancy. This is due in large part to Rita Zohar’s outstanding performance. Although the entire cast is good, the movie belongs to Zohar’s Mrs. Moskowitz. She makes the character extraordinarily vivid and lets us get inside the heroine’s head in a way that few performers are able to. We see Yolanda the way she sees herself, as a dignified woman with a great deal to offer, who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve and who has in some ways turned her back on a world that she doesn’t feel appreciates her. But she is gradually transformed throughout the story into a woman who loves life and herself.
You may be relieved to know that she doesn’t love cute kitties but loathes the furry creatures. At the beginning, Yolanda does everything she can to get the cats away from her building, where their yowling at night disturbs her. She is a retired French teacher who has spent most of her life alone but who still dresses in chic (if old) suits to run her errands. And even though she eats alone, in an early sequence we see her prepare a single, labor-intensive stuffed pepper in a bit of visual storytelling that clearly reveals the character.
When she shatters her hip in a fall and awakens in the hospital, she is revolted. She doesn’t want to spend her time with these sick, mostly elderly people. But as she is drawn into the life of the ward, she gradually gets to know those around her. Her roommate (Shulamit Adar), a critically ill woman, inspires compassion and also concern, as Yolanda fears she is being preyed upon by a friend/caregiver (Tikva Dayan), who gets lonely ill people to sign away all their property to her. The head nurse (the always formidable Idit Teperson) inspires respect, as well as fear. An Arab nurse (Shredi Jabarin) becomes an unlikely ally.
But what really changes her is meeting and falling in love with Shaul (Moni Moshonov), an injured, alcoholic former professional soccer player. His charm and neediness immediately attract Yolanda, and their romance, conducted mainly in wheelchairs, is touching. But there is a core of harsh reality underneath the idyll, and it’s clear that alcoholism, not love, is the passion that truly drives his life.
Zohar, who has been living in the US for years, won the Wolgin Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2009 for her performance in the title role. She has had small roles in such Hollywood films as Waterworld and Final Analysis and has recently performed on US television shows, including CSI. Her work in Mrs. Moskowitz made me wish she would come back to Israel more often, as well as that there were more roles this complex for actresses her age.
Moshonov gives an impressive performance in a role that is at times unsympathetic. Like a real alcoholic, he charms and persuades, then disappoints.
As the story progresses, it becomes unabashedly sentimental. But in a time when so many films are calculated and cynical, this is refreshing. Argentina-born Gurvich, who made his name here as a cinematographer before turning his hand to directing, has made a memorable film about characters we aren’t used to seeing front and center on screen.