How important is scope when determining a movie’s value? I am taunted by this question every time I get into an argument with someone over the relative worth of a virtually perfect smaller movie – say, The Full Monty – and a highly flawed, grand endeavour – say, Gangs of New York. At the risk of siding with the much maligned J. Evans Pritchard, so gloriously mocked by Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society, I admit I go through some kind of mathematical evaluation of both artistry and importance when I rate a film. It isn’t as conscious or as formulaic as Dr. Pritchard would have it. It remains fairly subjective. But scope does matter to me. The higher a movie aims, the more I am inclined to forgive its sins.
I was again reminded of that while watching Shemi Zarhin’s latest dramedy, The Kind Words. This is Zarhin’s sixth feature and it will do nothing to diminish his position as one of Israel’s most crowd-pleasing filmmakers, able to explore family tensions with a blend of biting and gentle humour. There is always a heavy dose of pain at the core of Zarhin’s humour, which may be part and parcel of Jewish humour in general.
Here, as he did in his first feature, Passover Stories (1995), which shares characters with the new movie, Zarhin is examining the tender and brutal emotions that bind families. And just as a dead son haunted the proceedings in Passover Stories, a missing family member literally haunts Dorona, the heroine of The Kind Words.
Zarhin has been a leading voice in Israeli cinema’s evolution from the political to the personal. Though the political landscape of modern-day Israel is never absent, movies like Aviva, My Love (2006), Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi (2003), and The World is Funny (2012) focus mostly on family interactions. Zarhin has been very successful at creating these funny, poignant portraits, both at home and internationally.
In The Kind Words, we find three adult siblings – Dorona, older brother Netanel (Roy Assaf), and younger brother Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon) – coming to terms with their mother’s death and a secret she had long kept from them. That secret is not terribly surprising. Zarhin hints pretty strongly at it in an opening sequence set in 1968 Algeria. He is not interested in the working out of a plot, or in surprising twists and turns. Instead, he wants to focus on these three siblings.
Each has a personal problem embedded deep in their core identities. Netanel is an orthodox Jew who insists on Kosher meals and proper observance of mourning rituals. But it becomes clear that he is going through the motions to please his more devout wife, whom he loves dearly. Though Shai seems quite comfortable living as a gay man in modern Jerusalem, occasional bursts of intense anger directed toward the father who left him suggests all is not well. And Dorona, who is having fertility trouble, must come to terms with a deep-seated ambivalence toward the whole idea of motherhood or risk losing her husband.
Their journey, which evolves into a manhunt ranging from Israel to Paris to Marseilles, is filled with bitter humour and poignant memory. They lash out and tease each other as only siblings can. And though there is not clear and easy resolution to any of their personal problems, the story ends on a wistful note of hope for each.
This has been a formula Zarhin has employed very successfully for twenty years. In Rotem Zissman-Cohen he has found a perfect Dorona, able to deliver biting wit and crushing sadness – able to be in turns selfish and sympathetic, bitchy and benevolent. There is a lot going on in Zissman-Cohen’s performance and she never lets Dorona become too monstrous or too saccharine.
And yet, here’s where that question of scope comes into play. For this is a small movie. Zarhin has an engaging plot, but it is not terribly dynamic. And though I much prefer this well-honed modesty to the similarly themed, overblown extravagance of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), there are other current filmmakers who reach much higher in this arena. Asghar Farhadi has the ability to take a similar simple domestic dilemma and turn it into all-encompassing drama. Most notably, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010), also revolving around siblings who delve into mystery after the death of a parent, cuts to the very heart of crisis, both personal and political. I think Incendies has flaws – perhaps more flaws than The Kind Words. But there is no question that it is a greater, more lasting achievement.
I’m not sure how Dr. Pritchard would evaluate such things. In the end, I suppose we each have an internal scale which balances perfection and scope. I’m glad I saw The Kind Words and I suspect I will recall moments from it, especially moments featuring Dorona, for some time. But I also suspect I will have forgotten it long before Incendies leaves my memory.