Delayed puberty and a dysfunctional family make life miserable for a Jerusalem adolescent in period coming-of-ager “Intimate Grammar,” a melancholy second feature from Israeli helmer-writer Nir Bergman (“Broken Wings”). Set in the 1960s, as the young nation of Israel inches toward the Six-Day War with Egypt and Syria, this adaptation of David Grossman’s interior monologue-laden literary novel nabbed the feature kudo at the Jerusalem fest. It will likely take higher-profile awards recognition to help this poignant but downbeat drama break out of the fest circuit and Jewish-interest events into modest niche arthouse play.
Beginning in 1963, when the protagonist is 11, the story unfolds over the next three years, as sensitive, introverted Aron Kleinfeld (Roee Elsberg) slips from being ringleader of his group of friends to a rank outsider, left to sadly tally which classmates’ voices have broken and who has sprouted facial and underarm hair. When his mature-looking best friend, Gideon (Eden Luttenberg), winds up with the girl Aron adores, it breaks his heart and spirit.
Aron’s tsuris over his small stature is made worse by his vulgar parents, whose biggest worry is keeping up appearances. His inarticulate, Polish-born father, Moshe (Yehuda Almagor), survived a Soviet labor camp and sneers at anything smacking of art or the cerebral (“There the inallectuals (sic) died first”). In contrast, his domineering mother, Hinda (Orly Zilbershatz), wields her lacerating tongue practically nonstop; her shrill hectoring and thoughtless actions constantly humiliate Aron, his overweight older sister (Yael Sgerski) and his incontinent grandmother (Rivka Gur).
From time to time, the cheerless mood finds some comic relief in the Kleinfelds’ lower-middle-class housing development, where the walls are thin and the inhabitants gossip behind each other’s backs. A longish episode involving refined spinster Edna Bloom (Evelyn Kaplun, strong) and her mad passion for Moshe begins humorously but becomes sad and grotesque.
As a director, Bergman excels at depicting the banal but telling details of the Kleinfelds’ family life, as well as the complex internal world of a pensive youth, but it feels as if he had some difficulty in calibrating all the performances to match the story’s serious tone. In particular, Zilbershatz’s portrayal of the fearsome mother strikes an off-key note as she teeters on the edge of sitcom caricature, as does Gur’s granny. However, newcomer Elsberg does a fine job as the bright boy who can master some of Houdini’s tricks but is at a loss with the codes of adolescence.
Although necessarily telescoping events and characters, Bergman’s layered script courageously remains faithful to its source, even down to the open ending. It also manages to find workable visual equivalents for the novel’s metaphorical content.
Solid craft credits evoke the look and sounds of ’60s Jerusalem, although the score too often drips with cheap sentiment.