Coming-of-age movies are easier to find these days than political consultants, and about as useful. Young directors trying to follow the advice to “write/film what you know” only know about coming of age (or old movies and TV). Boomers trying desperately to cling to their threadbare youths replay first love on camera to little effect. Unless your story really does have something to offer beyond the sentimental clichés of the genre, you should keep your coming-of-age story to yourself.
Happily, Avi Nesher’s “The Matchmaker,” which opens on Aug. 17, is an admirable exception: a coming-of-age story that is not only unusual but deeply felt and skillfully made, so that even the most predictable plot turn feels emotionally logical. The product of an unusual collaboration between Nesher and award-winning novelist Amir Guttfreund (“Our Holocaust”), the film is a thoroughly satisfying rumination on the necessity of love and the sometimes-awful things people do in its absence.
At the film’s outset it is 2000, and novelist Arik Burstein (Eyal Shehter) and his elderly father Yozi (Dov Navon) visit an attorney’s office in a Haifa that is under bombardment. There, Arik is informed of a considerable legacy bestowed upon him by a name from his youth, Yankele Bride. As they return to the empty streets of the city, both men are baffled by the inheritance; “I thought he hated me,” Arik says. Among the papers he has received from the attorney is the notebook that the young aspiring writer kept during the summer of 1968, a time when he worked for Bride, a mysterious figure whose primary occupation appears to be as a shadkhen, a matchmaker.
That summer Arik (now played by Tuval Shafir) was “almost 16,” he recalls as the film enters the extended flashback that covers almost all its running time. He is a smart-alecky kid, with a quick wit and a quicker mouth, whose practical joke on Yankele (Adir Miller) boomerangs in an unexpectedly positive way.
The shadkhen, a heavily scarred man who walks with a pronounced limp and the help of a walking stick, meets Arik’s father and recognizes him as a childhood friend from Romania, a fellow survivor of the death camps. Turning the situation to his advantage yet covering for the insolent teen, Yankele decides to take him on as an assistant, his “spy-guy,” who checks up on the veracity of prospective brides and groom.
This is an ideal summer job for an aspiring mystery writer, and it drops Arik into the milieu of Haifa’s “Low-Rent District,” a colorful, if occasionally ominous place in which he becomes at home with a fairly benign demimonde inhabited by the likes of Miss Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), one of a group of dwarves who survived Dr. Mengele’s experiments and now run a movie theater that “only shows love stories,” and Miss Clara (Maya Dagan), the fragile recipient of Yankele’s own affections and his business partner in small-time crime. At home, Arik faces a similarly complicated awakening when Tamara (Neta Porat), cousin of his best friend Benny Abadi (Tom Gal), is dumped unceremoniously on the Abadi family; she is an insolent, American-raised hottie who is entirely too aware of her devastating effect on the gradually emerging hormones of the teenage boys around her, particularly Arik.
This oddly mixed material has the potential for disaster. “The Matchmaker” could have been a gruesome mix of post-Shoah preaching, condescension to the Sephardic neighbors and cheap shots at America, as well as an oafish revival of the “Lemon Popsicle” franchise of dopey sex comedies. At the very least, given his previous films like “Turn Left at the End of the World” and “The Secrets,” Nesher might have opted for bathos and forced sentimentality.
Instead, he takes a complicated series of plot lines and intertwines them deftly so that they comment on one another without undue finger-pointing. He weaves an entirely believable and yet frequently enchanted milieu in which everyone has secrets, everyone has suspicions, and no one is privileged to the truth, a world in which, as Jean Renoir famously said, “everyone has their reasons, and that’s the tragedy of it.”
And the comedy of it. Nesher brings a pleasingly light touch to the film’s muted but genuine humor. Casting comic actors like Adir Miller and Maya Dagan against type in roles that carry tragic potential and a deeply melancholy subtext is an ingenious choice that makes the film’s darkest moments bearable. The result is that “The Matchmaker” is a film that finds that difficult balance between sentiment and sentimentality, between deeply felt emotion and a plastic substitute.
“The Matchmaker,” directed by Avi Nesher, opens on Friday, Aug. 17, at the Quad Cinema (34. W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com. The film will also be playing Aug. 17-19 at the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St.). For information, call (646) 505-5708 or go to www.jccmanhattan.org.