Hormones and kidney stones send an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem youth around the bend in “The Wanderer,” a visually assured but narratively underdeveloped feature debut from Israeli video artist/photographer Avishai Sivan. Independently made, tonally mixed drama, rigorously shot on 35mm with minimal means, reps a peculiar but memorable calling card destined to meander through the fest circuit, likely finding mixed reviews as well as some passionate supporters.
Only superficially similar to other dramas set in the ultra-Orthodox milieu, the pic is lightly marbled with a vein of absurdist dark humor that makes it a lot more fun to watch, yet the humor feels not quite right. While the stylized drollery of an Aki Kaurismaki or Fernando Veiroj would probably be inappropriate to the setting, Sivan’s sly humor ultimately undermines the tone of serious drama the viewer has been led to expect rather than making it more poignant.
Although most of his classmates are married, yeshiva student Yitzhak (Omri Fuhrer) lives with his born-again Orthodox parents and suffers painful ongoing health problems. Even though he can barely totter to shul with his devout father (Arab-Israeli helmer Ali Nassar, registering strongly in spite of the ironic casting), the skinny lad wanders fitfully through the night, looking like a deranged scarecrow in the traditional black garments of his sect.
When the doctors diagnose kidney stones (being repeatedly told to drink water becomes an ongoing joke) and prescribe an operation on his testicular vein, Yitzhak worries about his fertility. After having difficulties providing a sperm sample, the next scene shows him sitting glumly at a bus stop with scantily clad women entering the frame, a juxtaposition that typifies Sivan’s method of inserting humor.
The forbidden act of masturbation required to produce the sperm sample sends Yitzhak into a tailspin. Further unhinged by new knowledge about his parents’ mysterious past, he starts wandering distant streets, dressed in secular clothing, in search of sexual experiences. The final scenes place an even greater burden of seriousness on the tone of the tale, which the copout ending fails to resolve.
Claiming inspiration from European art films and Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu, Sivan’s visual style consists of strikingly composed, mostly fixed-camera shots in which short, standalone scenes play out. The action is played realistically, particularly in hospital scenes.
The thesps are mainly non-pro, their performances low-key but adequate. Protag Fuhrer is a film student in real life.
Even on the film’s low budget, lenser Shai Goldman (“The Band’s Visit”) manages to light some scenes like Vermeer paintings. The rest of the precise tech package perfectly supports Sivan’s overall visual aesthetic.