“The House on Chelouche Street” (“Ha-Bayit Berechov Chelouche”)
During the British Mandate
“The House on Chelouche Street” film traces the hardships that a family suffers in the politically unstable country. They came to Israel from Egypt during the British Mandate over Palestine and this is a nostalgic look at how things were then.
The year is 1947 and the United Nation decided to establish one Jewish state and an Arab one in the British ruled territory named “Palestine”. At that time, there are approximately 500,000 Jews in Palestine, large part of whom, resided in Tel Aviv. Among the endless ethnic communities populating the young metropolis, there were Jews from Egypt. The plot of the film centers around a 15 year old kid named Sammy (Offer Shalhin), the eldest of a four children family, run by the stern yet sensitive widowed mother (Gila Almagor) in a very credible and moving performance. Sammy was well read but his academic aspirations have to be set on hold as he shared the burden of co-provider of his family. Sammy reached puberty at a time of turmoil for the Jewish inhabitants of soon-to-be-Israel. This was when movements such as Etzel and the Haganah were at their peak of activity against British rule and Sammy was torn between his obligation to support his family and his need to fight against the Arab neighboring countries that launched an attack a day after the U.N. resolution. To make matters worse, Sammy became involved romantically with a 25 year old librarian of Russian descent (Michal Bat Adam), an affair that for all sorts of reasons, was frowned upon by his family and companions. The movie is low on plot development or pacing but it’s compensated by a wonderful cast that encapsulate the Jewish-Egyptian state of mind. The film was nominated for an Oscar and it tackles the awakening of a teenager as he becomes acquainted with the turbulent socio-political era in Israel. Directed by Moshe Mizrahi this is the story of a destitute mother who struggles to make her family earn a living by washing clothes, though problem arises when her eldest son falls in love with a librarian while being influenced with the unstable condition in the land.
Director Mizrahi arrived in pre-Israel Palestine, with his family, from Alexandria, Egypt. They were a Sephardic family, who spoke, like the family in the film, Ladino, a language that combines Spanish and Hebrew, just as the Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish. Sephardim are the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and went to places such as Greece and Turkey in the 19th century. The Sephardic Jews were a large and successful community in Alexandria, part of the vibrant cultural mix of the city before Nasser led a wave of nationalism that all but destroyed the cosmopolitan nature of the city. The film is semi-autobiographical, and presents a fascinating picture of this society in the days leading up to independence. Mizrahi was, like many Israeli directors in the ’60s and early ’70s, influenced by the French New Wave, and this film shows the strong influence of François Truffaut, especially “The 400 Blows”. Here he presented his ethnic tension within a economic reality that was much more honest, and critical, of Israeli society. This gives the film a depth seldom seen in Israeli films from that period. The actor who plays Sammy is the one problem in the film. He wasn’t a professional, and was very weak in the role, especially when cast along with some of the best actors in the history of Israeli stage and film. Yosef Shiloah, who was born in Iraq, and who died recently, was also a brilliant stage actor, who appeared in many lesser know films. Avner Hezkiahu is also well know for his stage work. And there’s Shaike Ophir, actor, pantomime and comic. Together it’s wonderful ensemble acting that puts the young lead actor at a disadvantage. Much of the dialogue, especially around the courtyard, is in Ladino. The older people especially speak it, while the younger ones more quickly go into Hebrew. We do not get much chance to hear Ladino these days.