“The World Is Funny” and wondrously strange in the tender new dramedy from Israeli fabulist Shemi Zarhin (“Aviva, My Love”). Full of quirky charm, this ambitious, multistrand tale about storytelling — and a fractured family — unfolds in a friendly Tiberias, Israel, where reality and fantasy cleverly intertwine. Already Israel’s top domestic B.O. draw this year, the pic is still in theaters and could do modest arthouse business offshore, especially if it wins the Ophir award for best picture (one of an unprecedented 15 nods) and is named Israel’s foreign-language film Oscar submission. Fest play is guaranteed.Budding writer Zafi (Naama Shitrit) has trouble composing endings to her stories. Instructed by her workshop leader to write about “people with secrets and lies, wounds and diseases,” she uses her housecleaning jobs to sniff out interesting tales. Among the narratives she collects and ties together is the sad story of estranged siblings Yardena (Assi Levi), Meron (Dani Shteg) and Golan (Eli Finish). Travel agent Yardena discovers she is pregnant. Although this should be a happy occasion, she has no idea how it could be possible, as she and her husband haven’t slept together since their daughter died during her army service two years ago. Now she must try to figure out who has impregnated her, while trying to come to terms with her repressed grief. Bitter, angry Meron and his rebellious teenage son, Hillik (Or Ben-Melech), experience a miracle of sorts when Meron’s older son, Nessi (Moshe Ashkenazi), awakes from a coma after eight years. But Nessi, now 18, still has the mentality of a 10-year-old, and Hillik and Meron struggle with different methods of bringing him back on course while hiding the dark secret that might just be the key to his recovery. Golan is a radio host who brings the town together when he broadcasts classic skits by the iconic comedy trio the Gashash, but he is helpless in the face of his own tragedy. His hospitalized girlfriend, Natasha (Ola Schor), has cancer and is not doing well. Instead of facing the painful reality of the present, he focuses on trying to bring the two surviving Gashashim to Tiberias for a reunion performance. Building on the tales-within-a-tale structure he used in “Aviva,” helmer-writer Zarhin, a novelist himself, alternates the orchestration of the siblings’ problematic lives with the stories that Zafi’s writing group composes. As the members of the group describe their work, their fanciful stories unfold in black-and-white footage. And it soon becomes clear that Zafi is not the only member of the group who is writing from life. Clearly, the pic’s underlying theme is about healing. Zarhin shows how love can both wound and provide remedy, how fiction can make reality bearable, and how humor works as a social tool people use to fix one another. The poignant ending he devises evokes both laughter and tears as it ties together the various story strands in a highly satisfactory way. Some of the humor is of the painfully human sort, deriving from a cathartic and compassionate acknowledgement of hurtful moments. Other bits are distinctly cultural, like the elaborate wordplay from the Gashash sketches that all of the characters quote, whose refrain, “Damned if I know, the world is funny so I laugh,” provides the pic’s title. There is also plenty of laugh-out-loud situational comedy. Warm thesping is entirely in tune with the helmer’s intent. Shot on location in a sunny-looking Tiberias, the attractive tech package is polished, with editor Einat Glaser-Zarhin’s smooth cutting and composer Jonathan Bar-Giora’s evocative score especially worthy of note.
A Pie Films, United King Films production. (International sales: United King Films, Tel Aviv.) Produced by Talia Kleinhendler, Moshe Edri, Leon Edri. Directed, written by Shemi Zarhin.
Camera (color/B&W, DV-to-35mm), Yaron Scharf; editor, Einat Glaser-Zarhin; music, Jonathan Bar-Giora; production designer, Yoel Herzberg; costume designer, Li Alembik; sound (Dolby Digital), Aviv Aldema. Reviewed on DVD, Chicago, Aug. 21, 2012. Running time: 127 MIN.
Assi Levi, Dani Shteg, Eli Finish, Naama Shitrit, Or Ben-Melech, Moshe Ashkenazi, Ola Schor, Yehezkel Lazarov, Shlomi Koriat, Rotem Zisman, Levana Finkelstein, Moshe Ivgy, Dror Keren, Alon Noyman, Avi Grainik, Rotem Abuhav, Israel Katorza, Zdeev Revach, Shaike Levi. (Hebrew, Arabic dialogue)