“THE MATCHMAKER” (“Pa’am Hayiti”)
“The Matchmaker” is one of the new films from Israel that deals with the Holocaust in a non-conventional way and because of its excellent acting, fine screenplay and sensitive plot won not only the Israeli “Oscar” but awards for best actor and best actress. The film will open in New York on August 17 and this is a film that you do not want to miss. Quite basically it is the story of a teenage boy who in 1968 goes to work for a male matchmaker, a Holocaust survivor, and both of their lives are changed forever. The film shows adolescent longing combined with fable and it mixes guilt and hope as it shows a side of Israeli society that we do not often see much less know of.
In 1968, Israel was coming of age after successfully emerging from the Six-Day War. Arik (Tuval Shafir), a teen growing up in Haifa, has dreams of becoming a war hero. His family had survived the Holocaust but as was the case with many, it was not spoken of. One day while playing ball with his friends, Arik meets Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), a matchmaker (a perfectly respectable profession in Israel), who had been a friend of his father when they were both youngsters in the “old country” and Arik takes a job as his assistant.
Haifa is a city divided into various sections (and I have lived in three of them) and Yankele ran his business in the lower city near the business district and the port. It is that part of Haifa where the sailors and prostitutes mingle with those who do not really fit into Israeli society and there is a lot of gambling and criminal activity there. Yankele feels that is his life’s mission to be a shadchan (matchmaker) and his specialty is what he calls “special people” because he feels that without love their lives are in danger. Arik is his detective and searches for potential matches and looking at the private lives and habits of candidates for marriage. During the evenings, Arik spends time with his best friend, Beni, and Beni’s beautiful cousin, Tamara (Neta Porat) who has come to Israel from America for the summer. She brings American culture to the boys and they learn of rock and roll and free love and before we know it, Arik and Tamara fall in love.
Meanwhile Yankele pines for Clara (Maja Dagan), another Holocaust survivor who has been ostracized because it is believes that she used her body so that she could survive the camps. We see that the film has several layers and this is what makes it so important. Written and directed by one of Israel’s leading directors, Avi Nesher, we are taken into a world that many do not want to believe ever existed.
The major theme is a coming-of-age story and we watch Arik mature in two ways—checking out potential matches and learning about America from Tamara with whom he falls in love. We also become aware of the way that Holocaust survivors are treated in Israel, a country that owes part of its existence to the fact that those who survived had nowhere to go. Cultures clashed as eastern Europeans who were victims came to live with Israelis who had put their lives on the line to build an independent nation and while this theme is not always overt, we are always aware that it is there. The historic events are described in an accurate manner-no historical discrepancies and all described events had actually happened (including the story about the cinema run by a family of seven midgets – true story).
I think we may forget that when the remnants of Nazi Germany came to Israel they did not leave the emotional scars they suffered behind and these scars played an important part in their assimilation into the culture of the country. Even today, they are not fully understood by those who did not experience the horrors that they witnessed and yet there were some who felt that the best way to erase the internal pain was to find love because it heals wounds.
Yankele also had some secret dealings going on alongside his matchmaking business and he comes across as quite a “shady” person. When Arik begins to work for him, he gets quite an education and much more than he ever bargained for in finding a summer job. The lead actors—Miller and Shafir are brilliant. Miller owns the screen and steals every scene his is in while Shafir as Arik gives us a beautiful portrait of a vulnerable youth who charms everyone he meets. The city of Haifa is also a character in the film and is portrayed as the bustling Mediterranean port city that it is, bustling with activity and vibrant. In Israel it is said that Haifa is for workers while Tel Aviv is for fun and Jerusalem is for prayer and we certainly see that here. The upper city of Haifa is lush and beautiful and a wonderful contrast for the lower city that is the seedy are where Yankele works. There is also wonderful contrast between Arik who lives in the beautiful upper city against Yankele who survives in the underbelly.
The story really reflects the life in Israel in the late 60s’ and early 70s’ showing the sad story of the Holocaust survivors, combined with the stories of those Jews who were born in Israel, and those who immigrated from other countries aside from Europe, or those who immigrated before WWII. This is shown in very delicately through the story of a young teenager and the matchmaker. The movie also raises some interesting moral issues that will leave you a lot to think about.
Looking back at what I have written, I realize that I might have made this film sound much heavier than it really is. There is a lot of humor here, and even some real comedy. The scenes in the downtown area have a certain charm, and bring to mind the atmosphere in those old black and white noir movies even though this film is in gorgeous color. It is the outstanding that most people will remember when they leave the theater. Many feel that they have seen enough about the Holocaust but I urge you to see this film and I think you will get a look at it that you have not seen before.
I must once again mention Maja Dagan as Clara who will knock you out with her performance as a broken sparrow who is lost in her own misery. We do not often get performances of this caliber. Finally, “the film’s equilibrium, counterbalancing Arik’s confused teenage joy and Yankele’s melancholia, is a metaphor all its own”.