CIFF 2010: The Matchmaker (aka Once I Was, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Avi Nesher

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Anyone who reads me regularly knows of my antipathy toward most Holocaust films. Their apparent attempts at ennobling victims and resisters of the Nazis always seem like just the reverse to me: to riff on something director Melvin Van Peebles said about black characters in movies, I suspect audiences just like to see someone suffer. Rarely in my experience have I seen a Holocaust-related movie that shows suffering without exploitation (Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is a very notable exception) or, more importantly, offers some kind of life lesson beyond the eternally paranoid “never again.” I’m extremely happy to report that The Matchmaker, by popular Israeli director Avi Nesher and based on a book by Amir Gutfreund, is a wise and wonderful coming-of-age tale that comments on the misuse and misunderstanding of the Holocaust while showing us a way to live a more gentle, tolerant life.

The film is told primarily in flashback by 50ish novelist Arik Burstein (Eyal Shehter), who is in for some surprising news from an attorney (Ya’ackov Bodo) whom he drives with his elderly father Yozi (Dov Navon) through a war zone in Haifa to meet. The attorney tells Arik that he has inherited the sizeable estate of Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), a matchmaker for whom Arik worked one summer when he was 16 years old. Both Arik and Yozi are thunderstruck at hearing this name, long vanished from their lives, and Arik is even more surprised to find that Yankele kept a story Arik wrote and gave to him during what would turn out to be their last meeting.

We are taken to the summer of 1968, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) is aware of the “doctrine” of free love espoused by American youth, and perhaps only dimly aware of the onset of their determinedly delayed adolescence. Arik is interested in sex, of course, but he goes against the grain of his American counterparts by wishing he were 18 and able to start his compulsory national service in the Israeli armed forces.

One afternoon, he and his friends are approached by Bride, who asks them if they have a brother or sister looking for love. He specializes in matching people who have some problem—physical or mental—that keeps them from attracting a mate. The boys decide to have it off on Bride, and Arik tells him he has a sister with flippers, that is, webbing between her fingers, that have ruined her chances for marriage. He directs Bride to his family’s apartment, and the boys follow him into the building to listen in on what is bound to be a humorous conversation. Much to Arik’s surprise, and his friends’ disappointment, when his father answers the door, he recognizes Bride as an old classmate from Romania and invites him in. When Bride learns that Arik is Yozi’s son, he offers him a job tailing prospective matches to be sure they don’t have any dark secrets that could make his clients unhappy. Arik’s qualifications beyond his family connection are his ability to lie convincingly and his love of detective novels.

Yozi and Yankele are both Holocaust survivors. Yozi chose to put the past behind him and start with a clean slate in Israel; his wife is a native Israeli, and neither of them talks with Arik about the Holocaust. Yankele, limping and with a huge gash across his face, is marked in more ways than one by his dark experiences. He lives “off the map” near the waterfront in the low-rent district people from Arik’s neighborhood only visit when they want to buy something that “fell off the boat.” He and his neighbors feel safer flying under the radar of the government and being near a port where they can flee quickly should the need arise.

Yankele works next to a movie theatre run by dwarves and across from a bagel bakery whose front-loading, coal-fired ovens face Yankele’s glass-fronted office in painful (and obvious) reminder of what 6 million of Yankele’s fellow Jews suffered in Europe. Another painful reminder is Clara Epstein (Maya Dagan), a beautiful woman Yankele loves but can never marry because her memories have left her so deeply damaged that she cannot bear strong feelings—even love; she has left her son in the care of others on a kibbutz so that he won’t be scarred by her emotional instability. Clara works with Yankele coaching his clients in the art of courtship and running a card gambling establishment out of her apartment. Yankele makes his money on the black market, and sees his penny-ante matchmaking business as more than a front—it is a mission to bring love back into the world.

Before meeting Yankele, Arik looked up to Meir (Dror Keren), the local librarian, who guided his literary choices to help him develop as a writer. But Meir proves to be a foolish and obsessive person who believes the stereotypes about Holocaust survivors—the men must have been camp capos and the women forced to be prostitutes for Axis soldiers—and tries to wreck revenge on Yankele when he dissuades Meir from pursuing Clara, whose attentions during his coaching session have set Meir’s heart on her. Through Yankele’s example—trying to find a mate for the beautiful dwarf Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), checking to see that his clients won’t be hurt in a bad match, treating Clara and everyone he encounters with kindness and dignity—Arik learns what being a mensch is all about and comes to love the sad, goodhearted “criminal.”

The Matchmaker is a teeming and brilliantly told story with a mise-en-scène that creates a believable past while still offering a certain timelessness that befits the film’s universal theme of love. The characters wear period clothing that seems somehow contemporary, and even some aspects of Israeli society, like kids as old as Arik being in the scouts, are updated when Tamara (Neta Porat), the cousin of Arik’s best friend Benny (Tom Gal), comes for the summer. The insertion of the rebellious Tamara, brought to Israel from the United States by her Iraqi Jewish father to remove her from the 60s youth culture, seems a bit of a non sequitur, but it is through Arik’s relationship with her that we see how he is developing as a sexual and emotional man. It is also through her that Arik comes to realize that it might not always be a good thing to inform on the people Yankele is considering for matches—that they may have loves and lives of their own with which no one has the right to interfere.

The performances are superlative and believable, with the actors and director affording dignity to characters that might have come off as too tragic, clownish, or freakish. Indeed, this entire film seems to be a plea for understanding, that we try to stand in the other person’s shoes. One moment I particularly liked is when Arik tells Yankele that he knows it’s a good deed to try to help Sylvia. Yankele shoots back, “What? Do you think they are pets? They are people!” Yozi, too, complains to Arik about what the average Israeli thinks about Holocaust survivors, calling The House of Dolls, a popular book about Nazis turning Jewish women into sex slaves, distorting rubbish.

The Matchmaker taught me a lot about Israel when it was still quite young and active in dealing with the fallout from World War II. Most important, it taught me about an aspect of the Holocaust that is often hidden, but that I so hoped existed—survivors surviving and learning to live, love, and try to spread joy to fight against the hardships of life. In these rather bleak times, The Matchmaker is a bittersweet valentine to the human race that might just renew your hope for a better tomorrow.

The Matchmaker will be shown Monday, October 11, 2 p.m., Sunday, October 17, 4:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 19, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/10/2010 to 5:49 pm

    “The Matchmaker is a teeming and brilliantly told story with a mise-en-scène that creates a believable past while still offering a certain timelessness that befits the film’s universal theme of love.”

    Coming of age cinema set during the Holocaust has yielded the likes of Louis Malle’s LACOMBE LUCIEN, Agnieska Holland’s EUROPA EUROPA and Mark Herman’s THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. Your point about the ensuing “exploitation” in a number of Holocaust themed films is a very good one, and it does compromise a number of them. For me the best Holocaust film of the past decade or so is FATELESS (SORSTALANSAG), directed by Lajos Koltai, a film based on the semi-biographical novel of the same title by the Nobel-Prize winner Imre Kertesz, who also wrote the screenplay. The teenage boy who is at the center of the narrative was sent to concentration camps at Aushwitz, Buchenwald and Zitz. This is one of the most haunting and shattering and inspiring films I’ve ever seen, and it contains an unforgettable score by Ennio Morricone.

    In any case, you are dead-on when you point to the seemingly endless parade of films on the subject, and just the past few weeks we’ve had three films in a row at Manhattan’s Film Forum on Nazi Doctors, Nuremberg and the resurrected film about the Polish ghettos.

    I am thrilled to read here of your strong estimation of a coming-of-age tale set during this period, even if it’s focus is on the fledging Israeli nation. I can’t wait to see it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/10/2010 to 8:39 am

    Sam – I haven’t seen FATELESS, having more or less sworn off Holocaust films. This one was a special case in my mind, being Israeli and being set in the 60s. It didn’t see like the Holocaust was the subject, and indeed, Arik’s growth was the main focus. I absolutely loved how many different ways it showed people coping with their past and building a future, an apt metaphor for the youthful Israel though this film does not play like a symbol in any way. I was so moved, and the film is expertly constructed and written. This festival seems to be a lovefest, and I’m digging the hell out of it.

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