In the ultra-low-key absurdist comedy “Afterthought,” two troubled men meet in the middle of Haifa’s long, steep stone stairs running from the top of Mount Carmel down to the port, as one ascends and the other descends. Tyro Israeli helmer-writer Elad Keidan, winner of Cannes’ Cinefondation with the short “Anthem” in 2008, here riffs on the human-terrarium style of that earlier work, incorporating distancing long shots, a slow pace, annoying repetition and protagonists who just amble along; the result is more, er, pedestrian and attenuated than cinematic. Still, Jewish fests should step up, and Israeli broadcast play is guaranteed.
At first glance, pudgy, middle-aged Moshe (Uri Klauzner) appears to be a kindly dreamer destined to be one of life’s losers. Even his musician wife, Na’va (Michaela Eshet), treats him like a schlub. When he sees that she is missing one of her earrings from a pair that he gave her for their wedding, he secretly decides to see if he can find it on the public stairs where she says she might have lost it.
Moshe starts his quest at the bottom and works his way upward, encountering various neighborhood characters on the way, including a witty Arab-Israeli lawyer with a penchant for handing out baklava, an elderly woman who needs to be carried up a few flights, and, most fatefully, Shaul (Ohad Shahar), the owner of an electronics shop who turns out to be the missing link in his quest for the absent earring. He’s also key to some vital and poignant exposition that emerges so late in the tale that some viewers may have already checked out.
In the meantime, Moshe’s meanderings are intercut with those of Uri (Itay Tiran, “Lebanon”) a glib, arrogant writer manque who is headed down to the harbor to board a ship that will take him abroad, away from his military reserve duty and far from the mess he has made of his personal life. Uri’s wife recently left him because of his affair with the girlfriend of one his colleagues in a barbershop quartet. Naturally, the fling has also sundered the musical group.
During mobile-phone conversations with his mother and in person monologues with friends at a cafe, Uri comes off as an altogether more self-centered, unsympathetic character than Moshe. His pretentious, notes-to-self dictations for future poems also work against generating warm feelings from the audience. When Moshe and Uri eventually pass one another, they stop to chat and share memories of the distant time when Moshe was Uri’s third-grade teacher. This encounter provides the setup for an entertainingly preposterous encounter between Uri and an incorrigible classmate who has now fallen on hard times.
Probably more appealing on the written page than as executed onscreen, the neat symmetries of Keidan’s screenplay attracted several works-in-progress script awards. However, what works best as cinema are the surreal moments of absurdity that provide some sly visual humor, such as the estranged barbershop quartet reuniting for a number in Hebrew and English against the backdrop of the port, Uri’s first glimpse of his errant classmate, and the horses that rep Moshe’s meager means of income.
Lensing by the normally distinguished Yaron Scharf (“Zero Motivation,” “Bethlehem,” “Youth”) is nothing special, in a cramped-looking, broadcast-ready screen ratio. Strongest tech credit is the sound design by Aviv Aldema, which provides a virtual city symphony. The transliteration of the Hebrew title is the more redolent “The Spirit of the Stairs.”