LOS ANGELES, June 20 (JTA) — Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarhin is a gourmet cook who specializes in diet-busting cakes. “I cook Sephardi style, Ashkenazi and Japanese,” Zarhin said in a phone call from Tel Aviv. “Next time you’re in Israel, come by and I’ll show you.” The 16-year-old title character of Zarhin’s film, “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi,” also cooks up a storm. Besides the family meals, he also does the laundry, cleans up, is the peacemaker in his quarrelsome Moroccan family, and bathes his French-speaking grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film’s title. Despite his pains, the wide-eyed Shlomi is considered stupid by his family and in school, where he is flunking out — and, unfortunately, he accepts the outside world’s assessment of him. At home, his obsessive mother has kicked out her hypochondriac husband for a one-time affair with her best friend. Shlomi’s older brother, their mother’s favorite, regales the boy with details of his real and fancied sexual conquests. But when Shlomi suggests to his girlfriend that they “upgrade” their relationship — Hebrew slang for having sex — she turns him down. Shlomi’s older sister has twin babies but regularly returns to her mother’s home to detail her fights with her husband, who shamefully surfs the net for pornography. It all looks like another story of another dysfunctional family, a recurring theme in Israeli movies, when Shlomi’s life slowly turns around. A perceptive teacher and school principal gradually peel away Shlomi’s layers of self-doubt and discover an exceptional mind and a poetic sensibility. A neighboring girl recognizes Shlomi’s real inner worth, and in a beautiful scene they shyly offer each other their finest gifts — she the herbs she grows in her garden and he the decorative cakes he bakes in the kitchen. “Monsieur Shlomi” is a charming film, a word rarely applied to Israeli movies. Oshri Cohen portrays Shlomi with veracity and his relationship with his grandfather (Arie Elias) is deeply affecting without sinking into sentimentality. The film is considerably more cheerful and wide-ranging than most dissections of adolescent angst. It offers a dash of humor and some non-graphic sex, though the language, even in subtitles, is often profane. As a bonus, Ashkenazi viewers will get a much needed insight into the lifestyle of Israel’s Sephardi Jews, a subject close to Zarhin’s heart. “I was born in Tiberias, which could be a very beautiful town, but the reality was hard, there were lots of unemployed,” he recalled. “My family arrived in Palestine from Morocco and Tangier 200 to 300 years ago. The Ashkenazim were here only 100 years, but they were the upper class and we were the underclass.” Zarhin, now 42, did not describe his own childhood, but, he said with some emotion, “I was miserable. Childhood is a waste of time.” Perhaps as an escape, “making films was my dream from the beginning,” he said. “But it was not easy to get the money and to leave for a big city like Tel Aviv.” He went on to graduate from the film school at Tel Aviv University, started out making TV commercials, then two feature films and is now on the faculty of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television College in Jerusalem. “I think the theme of ‘Bonjour’ is the contrast between a person’s outer image and his inner truth, and that is something that has always interested me,” he said. “It takes two outsiders to open Shlomi’s eyes to who he really is.” The U.S. theatrical release of “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” is on July 2 in New York and July 16 in Los Angeles. The film will open in other major cities in August through October. For updates, check www.strandreleasing.com.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.