The annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival this year bookends its six-day run with two Israeli films, opening with a bittersweet comedy and closing out with a hard-hitting look at the “lone soldiers” in the country’s army.
“A Matter of Size,” the festival opener on May 8, targets an American obsession, the constant struggle to shed excess weight.
In this case, the four protagonists are not just a few pounds over, but ... well ... enormously fat.
Foremost among the corpulent blue-collar workers in the hard-scrabble town of Ramle is Herzl (Itzik Cohen), who tips the scales at 340 pounds. After two weeks at a crash course on slimming, he’s gained another 28 pounds.
Desperate, with no girlfriend and a mother who simultaneously nags him to slim down and to eat up, Herzl recruits three heavyweight buddies and the four decide to become sumo wrestlers — a profession where fat folds are highly respected.
A Japanese restaurant owner — and former sumo coach — teaches the men the fundamentals, the lads put on a show for the enthusiastic townspeople, and Herzl gets the (full-figured) girl.
The plot and characters are reminiscent of “The Full Monty,” but with somewhat more serious undertones. While, in “Monty,” the size of a man’s private parts is generally not a matter for public inspection, the enormously obese men can’t hide their imperfections from sarcastic bystanders or scornful members of the opposite sex.
So there are lots of laughs, but “A Matter of Size” is also about how to regain one’s self-esteem in a thin-obsessed world, ready to humiliate those who don’t fit in.
The movie premieres May 8 at the Writers Guild of America, 135 S. Doheny Drive, in Beverly Hills. Red carpet arrivals, reception, and a discussion with the film’s directors, Erez Tadmor and Sharon Maymon, moderated by Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, start at 7:30 p.m. The screening begins at 8:30 p.m.
It will reprise May 10, 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.
From the very beginning of the state, Is rael’s defense forces have been strengthened by volunteers from abroad. For instance, according to official statistics, 14,250 Americans are now serving Israel on active or reserve duty.
In local parlance, these men and women are “lone soldiers,” because they have no families to visit on weekends to soften the harshness of military life.
“The Loners” (in Hebrew, “HaBodedim”) takes its title from two Russians, who left their kin in the late 1990s to enlist in the Jewish state’s famed Golani Brigade.
One, who goes by the odd name of Glory Campbell, is from the Caucasus, a region that breeds fierce fighters, while his close friend Sasha Bluchin is the son of a Russian general and more given to discussion and compromise.
Their attitudes and accents in Hebrew make them instant outsiders in their own unit. Glory, who has nowhere to go anyhow, makes some extra money by pulling weekend guard duties for sabras who want to go home instead.
When the film opens, it’s 1997, the men’s unit is stationed facing the Lebanese border and an overjoyed Sasha has just been accepted for officer’s training, when disaster strikes.
The two men are accused of selling ammunition and a rifle to Hamas, which the terrorists use later to kill five Israelis. The Russians maintain their innocence but are convicted and sentenced in a civil court and sent to jail, where they are brutalized by a sadistic officer and harassed by fellow inmates as “Hamasniks” and “traitors.” Stubbornly, the two men insist that as soldiers they are entitled to a retrial by a military court and, if found innocent, a return to their combat unit.
After this introduction, what follows are enough tension, flying bullets and homemade Molotov cocktails to satisfy any fan of Western movies.
The film is based on an actual case that stunned Israel in the late 1990s, but since few Americans will remember the trial and its aftermath, it would be unfair to reveal the rest of the plot.
But, as the title indicates, the movie is meant to focus on the sense of isolation felt by the IDF’s “lone soldiers.” Glory summarizes these resentments in a letter toward the end of the film, but more could have been done to weave this theme into the body of the narrative.
“The Loners,” by veteran director Renen Schorr, falls into the Israeli cinematic tradition of looking unsparingly at the country’s shortcomings, in this case the all-macho attitude of the army and, at times, derision of immigrant newcomers.
But the movie is more balanced than most such self-critical pictures by also showing principled and fair-minded army officers and is characterized by impressive acting.
Outstanding as the fierce and hot-tempered Glory is Sasha Avshalom Agrounov, who, according to the publicity release, has never acted professionally before.
His bravura performance earned Agrounov the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar as last year’s top Israeli actor.
“The Loners” will have its American premiere at the closing presentation at the festival, a coup for the festival’s executive director, Hilary Helstein. It will screen May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, with filmmaker Schorr on hand for a Q-&-A session.