Tehilim (2007)

Director: Raphaël Nadjari

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Israel is a country all too familiar with tragedies that tear families apart. Most of the outside world is familiar with the car bombs, border fighting, and saber rattling of Israel’s international politics. It is rare, however, for the average outsider to get a glimpse of the daily life of this country; we imagine, I suppose, that everyone lives in bunkers and watches for flak over their shoulders every day.
In fact, of course, Israel’s daily life is much like that found in other countries. Lower, middle, and upper classes exist in their day-to-day spheres. Fathers and mothers work, tend to their homes and families, and send their children off to school. Ordinary crimes and celebrations occur. Religious services are held. People come and go.

Eli Frankel (Shmuel Vilojni), his wife Alma (Limor Goldstein), his teenage son Menachem (Michael Moshonov), and younger son David (Yonathan Alster) lead a seemingly typical, middle-class life in Jerusalem. The kids fight, the mother badgers, the father intervenes when conflicts arise, and all do what they are assigned to do—work, homemaking, and school. Eli admonishes Menachem to listen to his mother and not come home at all hours because she worries. Menachem disobeys, of course, when he goes out with his friends and girlfriend Debbie (Reut Lev). David is always late getting ready for school.

One morning, Eli is driving David and Menachem to classes. When he reaches the school, a strange, distracted look comes over his face. He passes by the building, and David asks him why he didn’t stop. The car narrowly avoids hitting oncoming traffic and crashes onto a median. Menachem emerges from the vehicle a bit stunned. Eli tells him to go get help. Menachem weaves his way up the street and out of sight.

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When Menachem returns with a pair of heavily armed policemen—perhaps military—they see David lying in the back of the car. Eli is gone. The troopers call for an ambulance to take David and Menachem to the hospital. They take a statement from Menachem about his father. The Jerusalem police take over and plan a search of a 20-kilometer area to see if they can find Eli, who may be hurt and disoriented. Their search turns up nothing.

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The Frankels are in shock. They accept the ministrations of Aharon (Yoav Hait), Eli’s brother, and his father (Ilan Dar), which include nightly prayer vigils in Alma’s home and the printing of 200 copies of Tehilim (Psalms) for distribution within their prayer community. Alma also finds that she must find a way to make ends meet—the bank has frozen all the family’s assets until a missing person declaration is granted.

Amid the general tumult, and despite Alma’s attempts to comfort them, Menachem and David are left largely to their own devices. David seeks help from Menachem, who merely wants to be left alone. He stops attending school and pushes Debbie away. The accident car, which has been towed to a parking spot near their home, becomes a haunted place that Menachem visits, but fears touching, and a setting for his dreams.

Alma puts her foot down about the prayer vigils one day, declaring she needs some peace and quiet at home. Eli’s father becomes offended and storms out. Menachem chases after him, and visits him the next day to apologize. “She can’t help it,” says the pious man. “It’s how she was raised.” Menachem drags David to their grandfather’s Saturday morning Torah readings. It was something he used to do with his father.

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We watch Menachem slowly implode throughout this understated, internalized film. It doesn’t help that everyone around him emphasizes how important family is at a time like this; perhaps the most important family member to Menachem—his father—has apparently bugged out. He must feel, as children do, that he did something wrong to drive his father away, and what solace can there ever be for him.

The handheld camerawork, meant to give this film an immediacy, is frequently and jarringly out of focus. Watching the daily struggle of a family in crisis is both tedious and extremely unnerving. However, French director Nadjari pulls a stellar performance out of Moshonov that is mesmerizing to watch. The growth of panic and grief is so gradual, but insistent, that we experience the same anticlimax at the end of the film as the Frankels do. We’ve become invested in their plight more than is comfortable.

Tehilim opens on one of the grandfather’s Torah readings. The men are studying a text that asks how a man who does not know toward which direction he is facing turn his prayers toward Jerusalem. The answer is that he must turn his face to God. Menachem and we can only hope that turning his face to God will help him find his way. l

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