A genial slacker, a private investigator and a femme fatale join forces to rescue a kidnapped holy man in Avi Nesher’s engagingly helmed “The Wonders,” an unusual dramedy that offers a stylish and amusing riff on “Chinatown” by way of “Alice In Wonderland.” But on another level, it provides ripped-from-the-headlines commentary on the messianic cults that misuse the millions of shekels finagled from their followers, as well as the appeal of religion as a panacea for lost souls searching for something to believe in. Fests and Jewish-interest events should take note of this Israeli B.O. hit.
Starting as an urban noir, the character-driven plot initially seems as convoluted as “The Big Sleep.” It pivots on the missing Rabbi Knafo (Yehuda Levi), whose followers believe he’s a modern-day prophet with a direct line to God that allows him to foresee the future. Knafo suddenly turns up in an abandoned Jerusalem apartment, the captive of some sinister ultra-Orthodox thugs; although the rabbi is clearly in a repentant mode, his captors beat and starve him while trying to extract a written confession with which they plan to blackmail him.
Meanwhile, menacing private detective Jacob Gittes (Adir Miller, a standup comic who scored dramatically as the star of Nesher’s “The Matchmaker”) monitors Knafo’s plight. Gittes is working on behalf of Knafo’s sister-in-law, Ella Gorsky (Yuval Scharf, “Ana Arabia”), a gorgeous redhead with some secrets of her own. When Gittes requests the assistance of laid-back graffiti artist Arnav (lanky, mop-haired comic Ori Hizkiah, making an appealing film debut) who lives in a messy flat across from where Knafo is being held, complications and misunderstandings ensue as loyalties shift and revelations surface.
Vet helmer Nesher makes nifty use of his Jerusalem setting, especially the distinctive Musrara neighborhood, where ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs and counterculture bohemians live side-by-side. He also draws significant humor from the abrasive relationship between bitter workaholic Gittes, a man of many disguises, and cheerful, sociable man-child Arnav, who takes pleasure from his mundane existence bartending, painting his signature rabbit graffiti, and inhaling confidence and relaxation courtesy of the local pot dealer.
The screenplay by Nesher and Shaanan Streett, frontman of the hip-hop/funk band Hadag Nahash (which provides the pic’s original songs), mixes genres with the lightest of touches. In an inspired move, Arnav’s overactive imagination is depicted with classic hand-drawn animation presenting Jerusalem as a mysterious Wonderland.
On the thesping front, Miller and Hizkiah play off of each other beautifully, delivering their smart dialogue with expert comic timing. Seductive Scharf gets into the spirit of her character while chanteuse Efrat Gosh provides an offbeat presence as Arnav’s ex-girlfriend, who is having a religious crisis of her own.
As befits a noir, night scenes dominate, suffused with a warm, golden glow by lenser Michel Abramowicz. The cramped, nicely detailed interiors stand in marked contrast to the openness of the Musrara streets and the isolated desert location of the Tomb of Amos, where some climactic action takes place. The stirring score by Avner Dorman and sophisticated sound work by Alex Claude and David Lis smoothly signal the film’s shifts in genre.