Director Avi Nesher holds a unique place in Israeli cinema, having directed some of the most beloved Israeli films of all time and continuing to top himself year after year. To celebrate his 70th birthday this month, several cinematheques around the country are honoring him with a number of tributes.
The Tel Aviv Cinematheque is holding a major retrospective of his work, running from December 19-31, and is publishing a special issue of its magazine devoted to his work, with articles from film critics (I contributed a piece) and some of his collaborators. This tribute is a rare opportunity to see many of his movies on the big screen, as they were meant to be seen. Although many of his films are shown frequently on television, it’s a different experience to see them in a movie theater, and the opportunity should not be missed.
I would urge all aspiring filmmakers to see these movies to learn from Nesher’s mastery of storytelling, his ability to work with actors (virtually every actor he casts gives their best performance), his soundtracks (whether it’s original music or period songs, his films have some of the best and most iconic scores in Israeli movies), and the excellent cinematography and brilliant scripts that are filled with quirky, unpredictable dialogue.
His movies are enjoyable on so many levels that they sometimes have not received their due from the critical establishment, which tends to denigrate movies that are fun to watch. His movies span Israeli history and contemporary life to paint a rich, affectionate but realistic portrait of the country.
This tribute will kick off with a screening of his 2010 film, The Matchmaker, a coming-of-age story set in the late 1960s in Haifa, about the teenage son of a Holocaust survivor who gets a summer job working as a kind of a detective for a mysterious matchmaker. The matchmaker is played by Adir Miller, who gives one of the best performances in the history of Israeli cinema. The movie also features wonderful work from Maya Dagan, an actress who, like Miller, was known most for comedy before she played this part.
Among the key characters are a family of seven Romanian dwarves who own a movie theater in downtown Haifa that only shows love stories – which is based on a true story, proving, as Nesher often has said in interviews, that you can’t make this stuff up. Nesher will attend the opening, which will include remarks by outgoing Culture Minister Chili Tropper, actress Nelly Tagar and Prof. Avner Faingulernt.
The closing night of the tribute will feature an interview with Nesher by Channel 12’s Jonathan Rieger and will include a musical tribute.
Nesher's career can be divided into three phases, all of which are represented in this tribute: the movies he made in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hollywood movies he made in the 1980s and 1990s, and the movies he made since his return to Israel in the early 2000s. During the tribute there will be a screening of his first film, Halahaka (The Band), from 1978, about an army entertainment troupe.
It features some of the best-known Israeli pop tunes, including “Shir Halahaka,” “Karnaval Ba Nachal” and “Shir L’shalom,” which have become a kind of national soundtrack. It stars a who’s who of Israeli actors, comedians and pop stars, including Gidi Gov, Meir Suissa, Meir Fenigstein, Gali Atari, Doval’e Glickman, Chelli Goldenberg and Tuvia Tzafir; even Uri Zohar makes a cameo appearance. Don’t be surprised if this screening turns into a sing-along.
Another movie in the tribute, Dizengoff 99, is a 1979 film also starring Gov and Suissa, about young Israelis in Tel Aviv who work for an advertising agency and end up making their own movies. A third film from his early period, Rage and Glory (1984), a complex and controversial story about the Jerusalem cell of the Lehi underground, will be shown. It stars Juliano Mer-Khamis, the Jewish-Palestinian actor who was murdered in 2011, presumably by Islamic terrorists, in what many believe was his best movie role.
There are two films from Nesher’s years making movies in Hollywood, Timebomb, a sci-fi action film from 1991, and Taxman (1998), which is Nesher’s favorite among his American movies. It is a fact-based drama that tells the story of an ornery IRS agent (Joe Pantoliano), whose investigation brings down the Russian mob in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach.
The first of Nesher’s films following his return to Israel, Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), is well worth seeing on the big screen. It tells a uniquely Israeli story of Indian immigrants to a Negev town in the late 1960s, who clash with the Moroccan residents there, shown through the eyes of an Indian girl who wants to be a writer.
In spite of this very particular and unusual setting, Turn Left has a universal appeal that audiences around the world have responded to. Nesher’s latest film, Image of Victory, a beautiful and moving story of Egyptians and Jews caught up in the Independence War, will be part of the tribute, as will his 2007 film, The Secrets, about an ultra-Orthodox young woman who delves into kabbalah mysticism, and The Other Story, about a psychologist living abroad who returns to Israel to try to persuade his newly religious daughter to cancel her wedding.
One rarely shown film will be Nesher’s only documentary, Oriental (2004). It mixes footage of a Russian-born belly dancer in Israel who works with Arab musicians, with interviews with negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The film illustrates in a direct and visceral way how people with different world views come into conflict. The film will be followed by a discussion between Nesher and Dr. Shmuel Duvdevani of Tel Aviv University.
STARTING DECEMBER 23, the Jerusalem Cinematheque will have a different tribute to Nesher: it will show a selection of his favorite films – five movies that inspired him, to be shown from December 23-31.
To say that Nesher is a film buff is an understatement and I can only imagine how hard it was for him to winnow his favorites down to these five. This series will open with John Ford’s The Searchers, the classic 1956 Western starring John Wayne as a veteran who sets out to find his niece, who has been kidnapped by what were then called Indians. It’s a film that has inspired generations of moviemakers, and was referenced in Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical film, The Fabelmans.
The series will also include Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, a 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel about a young man who joins the fascist party, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant; Mediterraneo, Gabiele Salvatores’s sexy 1991 comedy about a unit of Italian soldiers who occupy a Greek island during World War II; Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a quasi-documentary look at the guerrilla war for Algerian independence from the French in 1954; and Warren Beatty’s historical epic Reds, about an American communist, John Reed, starring Beatty and Diane Keaton.
The Herzliya Cinematheque is also having a tribute to Nesher throughout the month and into January. On December 21, it will feature a master class with Nesher and actress Joy Rieger, who starred in his last three films. Nesher’s 2016 film, Past Life, the first he made with Rieger, will be screened following their discussion.
Rieger is an actress who makes her every word and movement seem natural and effortless, and Nesher has guided her to some of the best performances in Israeli cinema. Their second collaboration, The Other Story, will be shown in this program in January. A restored copy of The Secrets will be shown on December 27.
Once you have caught up with Nesher’s older and more recent work, you can look forward to his newest film, his fourth with Adir Miller, The Monkey House, to be released next summer.