A memory play gold-dusted with adolescent longing and a strong sense of fable, “The Matchmaker” seems singular among Israeli features in the way it juxtaposes guilt with hope, national birth pains with youthful hubris, and utilizes an underside of Israeli life not usually exposed to public view. Nevertheless, this look back at late-’60s Haifa makes for strong, accessible, character-driven drama. Theatrical exposure will be limited to arthouses, but festival play should be strong and DVD sales vibrant.
Opening in 2006 Haifa, with the sky raining Lebanese missiles, “Matchmaker” finds the 50-ish writer Arik Burstein (Eyal Shechter) receiving a windfall: Yankele Bride (Israeli standup comic Adir Miller), the matchmaker for whom Arik worked as a teenager, has left him money and property in his will. The unexpected, life-transforming inheritance whisks Arik back into the past, to Haifa of 1968 — a changing world that includes his parents, who’ve seen enough change in their life, and Yankele, a Romanian camp survivor who is introduced to Arik at a pivotal moment of his youth.
Based on Amir Gutfreund’s book “When Heroes Fly,” “The Matchmaker” has a novelistic traffic jam of plotlines; Yankele works out of the “bad side” of Haifa, where women of ill repute, smugglers and vagabonds inhabit the street. Helmer Avi Nesher creates a sense of Fellini-esque carnival, made only more striking by the presence of the diminutive Sylvia (the beautiful Bat-el Papura) and her family of dwarves, who run the local movie house. Sylvia is one of Yankele’s more problematic clients, but he’s not discouraged, being convinced that he can provide people “what they need, not what they want.”
The ad-hoc alliance of young Arik (Tuval Shafir) and Yankele is believable and poignant: Arik is the bright future of Israel, whereas Yankele is its past — viewed as shameful by many Israeli, who believe if you survived the Holocaust, you must have done something wrong. This becomes the film’s most intriguing aspect: Did Yankele do something he’s ashamed of? What about Clara (Maya Dagan), whom Yankele, the matchmaker, can love only at arm’s length? “The Matchmaker’s” most exhilaratingly pathetic moment arrives when Yankele relates to Arik a camp story that ought to curl his hair: Is it really about Yankele and Clara? We never know, but the possibility is haunting.
Miller is superb, as is Dagan, whose Clara is a broken sparrow, lost in her sorrows. Running concurrently with their tale is Arik’s story, which is a far more pedestrian tale of raging adolescence. When the disturbing Tamara (Neta Porat) is dropped off with relatives for the summer, in the hopes of straightening out her disruptive behavior, the teenage city of Haifa is suddenly introduced to the ’60s; Tamara is like an Israeli version of Courtney Love, upending propriety and getting several boys, including Arik, in touch with their burgeoning libidos.
The film’s equilibrium, counterbalancing Arik’s confused teenage joy and Yankele’s melancholia, is a metaphor all its own, and is well handled by Nesher. What “The Matchmaker” lacks is a similar sense of calibration with regard to performances; the younger characters come across as far less convincing than their elders. But perhaps that’s a metaphor, too.
Production values are topnotch.