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Jewish Journal

In Search of ‘Shlomi’

by Tom Tugend

July 1, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Shlomi, the 16-year-old protagonist of the Israeli film, "Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi," has his hands full.

He cooks the family meals, cleans up, does the laundry, is the peacemaker in his quarrelsome Moroccan family and bathes his grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film's title.

For his pains, the wide-eyed Shlomi is considered none too bright by his family and in school, where he is flunking out.

Worse, Shlomi believes the outside world's assessment of him, which seems to be confirmed by his first attempt at romance. When he suggests to his girlfriend that they "upgrade" their relationship -- Hebrew slang for having sex -- she "freezes" him out.

At home, the situation is even worse. His obsessive mother has kicked out her hypochondriac husband for a one-time slip with her best friend. Shlomi's older brother is the mother's favorite, and she regales the boy with clinical details of his real and fancied sexual conquests.

Shlomi's older sister has twin babies but regularly returns to her mother's home to detail her fights with her husband, who shamefully surfs the Internet for porn.

It all looks like another story of another dysfunctional family, a recurring theme in Israeli movies, when Shlomi's life slowly turns around.

A perceptive teacher and school principal gradually peel away Shlomi's layers of self-doubt and discover an exceptional mind and poetic sensibility.

A neighboring girl recognizes Shlomi's real inner worth, and in a beautiful scene they shyly offer each other their finest gifts -- she, the herbs she grows in her garden, and he, the diet-defying cakes he bakes in the kitchen.

The film's theme is "the pain created by the gap between one's outer image and the inner truth," said Shemi Zarhin, the film's director, himself of North African descent.

"Monsieur Shlomi" is a charming film, a word rarely applied to Israeli movies. Oshri Cohen portrays Shlomi with absolute veracity and his relationship with his grandfather (Arie Elias) is deeply affecting.

As a special bonus, Ashkenazic viewers will get a much-needed insight into the lifestyle of Israel's Sephardic Jews. Although director Zarhin's ancestors came to Palestine nearly 300 years ago, "both I and Oshri grew up with the mindset that we were part of Israel's underclass," he said.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi" opens July 16 in Los Angeles.

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