“The Matchmaker” is the opening-night presentation of the 25th Israel Film Festival, which will take place Oct. 20-Nov. 4 and has grown to be the largest showcase of Israeli films in the United States. But don’t expect a heartwarming shtetl romance or a Hollywood-ish “Father of the Bride” comedy.
The movie has its humorous moments, but basically it is an honest though sympathetic view of the underbelly of Israeli society: its outsiders, from scarred Holocaust survivors and black-market dealers to prostitutes and — I kid you not — seven dwarfs. It will be the first of more than 30 features, documentaries and television programs that will spotlight how far Israeli cinema has come in the last quarter-century; the fare will include Yigal Nidam’s “Brothers,” about two siblings who personify Israel’s religious and political conflicts, nominated by the European Film Academy for best picture in 2009; the doomed Arab-Israeli romance “Jaffa,” an official selection at both the 2009 Cannes and Toronto International Film Festivals; and an homage to producer David Silber of “Lebanon,” the Golden Lion winner at Venice which has just been nominated for the European Academy and International Federation of Film Critics’ Prix Fipresci for best first feature.
“The Matchmaker” is set in Haifa’s Lower City, the often gritty harbor area, far from the well-appointed homes on Mount Carmel with their magnificent views of the Mediterranean. The time is 1968, one year after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War.
Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), the matchmaker, is right at home in this milieu. A Holocaust survivor whose back story we never learn, he is a man with a scarred face whose professional motto is, “I’ll give you what you need, not what you want,” and who “specializes in special cases” among his clientele.
One such case is Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), caught up in the real-life story of seven Romanian dwarfs, fancied by Dr. Mengele for his Auschwitz experiments, who came to Israel and opened a movie theater in the Lower City, showing only romance pictures, mainly from India.
With her beautiful, luminous face, Sylvia “has a big heart in a small body,” as Yankele tells potential suitors.
Then there’s Meir (Dror Keren), the shy librarian who takes lessons in the social graces from the beautiful and mysterious Clara (Maya Dagan), who hides her Holocaust scars and is Yankele’s constant companion and ally in some of his shadier dealings.
Joining this odd set of characters is Arik Burstein (Tuval Shafir), a 17-year-old sabra from a middle-class family, who is recruited by Yankele to scout for new prospects and as a private eye to check out backgrounds of dubious clients.
Arik yearns to become a soldier and war hero but in the meantime is a voracious reader of the then-popular Stalag novels, in which sadistic Nazis made sport with voluptuous Jewish women prisoners.
The boy shares the belief of most Israelis of the time that the Holocaust survivors in their midst were kind of freakish and must have done something highly immoral and devious in the camps to escape death.
Since Arik’s own parents are survivors, he dares not ask them about their own experiences, even if they are willing to discuss them, for fear of what he might find out.
While Israel’s outsiders continued to struggle, for most young natives 1968 was the year they discovered the summer of love, rock music and other American innovations.
For Arik, love comes in the shapely form of Tamara (Neta Porat), daughter of a wealthy Iraqi family, who was raised in the United States. She brings startling news of women’s liberation and free love, and jumps fully clothed into a water fountain during a chaste scout meeting.
Avi Nesher is director and co-writer of “The Matchmaker,” and the film reflects much of his own life and upbringing.
He grew up the son of Holocaust survivors who never spoke of their past, and, as a 15-year-old in 1968, Nesher absorbed the changes brought about by the Six-Day War victory and the youthful revolts of the decade.
Nesher spent much of his adolescence in the United States, returning to Israel for his army service — where, to his embarrassment, he found out that he now spoke Hebrew with an American accent (and English with an Israeli accent).
At 23, he made his first film, “The Troupe,” an instant hit about an army entertainment group. He followed with a number of other successful movies but received so much flak with his 1984 picture “Rage and Glory,” about the pre-state underground Stern gang, that he decided to leave for Hollywood.
During a decade in the movie capital, he made a series of low-budget films, which made the studios — and him — a nice pot of money.
However, as his children grew up, he decided it was time to return to Israel, and right away scored big with the 2004 movie “Turn Left at the End of the World,” which became the highest-grossing movie in Israeli history.
“The Matchmaker” is Nesher’s most personal film to date, and while he abhors the idea of making a genre Holocaust movie, it is a subject that he — and Israel — cannot leave behind.
“The memory and mythology of the Shoah is in our DNA, for good or for bad,” Nesher said in a lengthy phone interview. “This catastrophe is still unresolved; it needs to be discussed and understood. It is part of the dialogue between myself and my kids.”
“The Matchmaker,” he insisted, is not a Holocaust film. “It is mainly a coming-of-age movie, about a kid growing up. He learns about the Holocaust, while at the same time finding out about the nature of love.”
Nesher feels equally at home in Israel and in the United States, he said, and writes in English and Hebrew with equal fluency. He acknowledges, though, that he would find it difficult to survive in the Jewish homeland without being able to follow his beloved New York Giants on ESPN.
His family reflects the international outlook. “My father came from Romania, my mother is from Russia, my wife is Italian, and my kids are American,” he said. His next film will be about an American woman living in Israel.
Nesher will come to Los Angeles for the screening of “The Matchmaker,” which won two Ophirs — Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars — one for Adir Miller in the title role as best actor, the second to Maya Dagan (Clara) as best actress.
However, best picture honors, and thus automatically Israel’s official entry in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ foreign-language film category, went to Eran Riklis’ “The Human Resources Manager.”
Nesher, now 57, finds making movies in Israel “intoxicating,” with special psychological rewards. “When I run on the beach in the morning, some seven or eight people will stop me to say something nice about my last picture or ask me what I’ll be doing next,” he said.
The Israel Film Festival offerings will be shown at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Royal in West Los Angeles and Fallbrook 7 in West Hills, according to Meir Fenigstein, IsraFest’s founder and executive director.
On Oct. 20, a gala awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton will honor actor Richard Dreyfuss and producers Ryan Kavanaugh, Jon Landau and Avi Lerner.
For ticket information, go to israelfilmfestival.com or call (877) 966-5566.