Ahighlight of recent Israeli cinema, “Sh’hur” is a searing, most touching drama of a Jewish Moroccan family torn by generational conflicts. This well-crafted film provides a realistic, often depressing portrait of a community that has been underrepresented in Israeli arts and letters. Pic’s handling of important issues should make it an invaluable addition to film fests and retrospectives of Israeli cinema and perhaps even intrigue an entrepreneurial specialized distributor.
A semi-autobiographical account of screenwriter Hana Azulay-Hasfari’s childhood, “Sh’hur” depicts the colorful, often misunderstood subculture of Israel’s Jewish-Moroccan community. Contempo story revolves around Rachel (Azulay-Hasfari), a young TV newscaster who recollects her painful childhood through flashbacks. A thoroughly Westernized Sabra who, as a teenager, went out of her way to obliterate her ethnic origins, Rachel now struggles to come to terms with her family and her tradition.
A product of a large, poor and uneducated clan, Rachel is embarrassed by her family’s subculture, a mystical world of spirits and demons that includes the regular practice of sh’hur (magic spell), a primitive ritual meant to provide an absolute solution to any problem. Her blind father is an orthodox Jew who not only knows the Bible by heart but also uses it in his everyday lingo. The family’s expressive leader — and center — is her mom (Gila Almagor), who does her best to reconcile the various tensions besetting the family. Causing many of those is older sister Pnina, a mentally retarded girl with scary supernatural powers.
Enjoying the moral support of her older brother, Rachel knows that her only chance at salvation is leaving the family and going to a boarding school. But cutting her life off from her family entails a heavy price, and now, a mature woman, she needs to revisit — and make sense of — her past.
What lends the story a genuinely tragic dimension is the fact that as a single mom undergoing divorce, Rachel also has to come to terms with her own retarded daughter. In one of the film’s many emotional scenes, a special bond is established between Rachel’s daughter and Pnina, her equally problematic aunt.
Helmer Shmuel Hasfari, who’s married to the scripter, treats the material with a sensitive and incisive hand, without turning its potentially melodramatic elements into an excessively sentimental movie. Tech credits are excellent, particularly alert and precise cinematography by David Gurfinkel, one of Israel’s leading lensers.