When a Jerusalem man vanishes, his wife and two sons find that Judaism may be better suited to debating age old questions than providing answers for coping in the here and now in Raphael Nadjari’s “Tehilim.” Exploring unresolved loss with docu-like veracity, this intimate, disturbing tale will prove more frustrating than enlightening for many viewers, despite its conversation-sparking premise. Cannes preem in competition for keenly thesped drama assures further fest dates and niche bookings.
First 15 minutes establish the characters, with slightly ominous musical score a near-constant presence throughout. Pic’s restless, overwhelmingly hand-held camerawork reflects protags’ strain but proves stressful for aud.
The Frankel family has its minor disagreements but functions smoothy enough. Eli (Shmuel Vilojni), the father, comes from a very observant family. His father, Shmuel (Ilan Dar), and brother Aharon (Yohav Hayit) revel in the intellectual challenges of Jewish scripture and put great stock in living their faith, although they’re far from fanatical.
Eli’s wife, Alma (Limor Goldstein), has a more secular background. Teen son Menachem (Michael Moshonov) wears his yarmulke at home but sheds it as soon as he heads out the door to meet classmates or his girlfriend, Dvora (Reut Lev).
Menachem and younger brother David (Yonathan Alster) bicker over typical sibling matters but enjoy a genuine fraternal equilibrium. Eli is driving his boys to school when he inexplicably jumps a curb, producing a mild crash. All three passengers seem fine and Menachem follows his father’s order to go get help.
When Menachem returns with police and an ambulance, his brother is still in the car but Dad is gone. He could have wandered off in a daze or been abducted by aliens. Only God — perhaps literally — knows.
From this turning point flows a studious, achingly convincing examination of how each member of the family processes events. In a society often geared for tragedy, solicitousness from friends and family can seem more rote than sincere.
Shmuel and Aharon think constant prayer will mitigate the crisis, but Alma has soon had it up to here with their pious intrusions. She has a household to run and scripture doesn’t really address what to do when your husband vaporizes and the authorities freeze your bank account.
Hurt and at loose ends, Menachem craves more quality time with Dvora, with mixed results. As age-old rituals are of little comfort to the boys, they improvise one of their own.
Pro and nonpro thesps nail the mix of faith and pragmatism across the generations of an extended family, with high praise for the two boys.
Title refers to the Psalms that are at the heart of Jewish liturgy, providing guidance in all circumstances from joy to despair.