Here’s an interesting recipe for foreign film funny business. Take the Palestinian/Israel issue, mix in a little familial dysfunction (actually, make that a massive amount of parent/child chaos), ladle in some Pedro Almodovar-style suggestions of sex, drench with quirk for the sake of contrivance, and garnish with a smidgen of ‘war on terror’ wariness. Serve as a satire and call it a ‘dark comedy’. At least, this is what the husband and wife directing team of Teresa De Pelegri and Dominic Harari have concocted for their 2004 look at love among the ideologies, Only Human. This creative anarchy is desperate to juxtapose the political problems in the Middle East with the personal problems of an atypical Jewish household. Sometimes it succeeds. At other instances, it just lays there, lost in its own sense of eccentricity.
You see, the Dali family is fraying around its idiosyncratic edges. Father is suspected of having an affair, while Mother is slowly starting to melt, mentally. She spends her days dropping anti-depressants and taking care of her live-in children. The youngest, David, has rediscovered his Judaism and is obsessed with issues of the Sabbath and keeping kosher. Older daughter Tania is a local scandal, a successful belly dancer that uses her lack of love at home as a constant source for seduction and sluttiness. She has a daughter, little Gloria, who places pillows under her shirt so that the graduated toddler can play pregnant, just like Mom. Rounding out the oddballs is Grandpa Dudu, a blind Suez Canal veteran who worships the Arab–killing rifle he used all those years ago. Add in an injured baby duck swimming in the bidet, a lethal block of frozen soup, and the arrival of daughter Leni and her Arab literature professor boyfriend Rafi, and you’ve got the makings of an outrageous social commentary.
That’s what De Pelegri and Harari want you to think. For a while, Only Human has a light, airy tone, one that circumvents the potential politic issues inherent in the new couple’s partnership to deal with relatives who are ‘this’ close to going completely crackpot. Indeed, the first 15 minutes consist of one of those breakneck motion picture mosh pits where characters are tossed around randomly, personality problems and underlying issues allowed to briefly bubble up and then subside. It is here where we learn of Tania’s uncontrolled libido, David’s new devotion, Dudu’s ongoing imaginary battles and Gloria’s uncomfortable sense of sexuality. As long as they keep the narrative fun and frothy, never getting too deep into the reasons behind everyone’s oddness, Only Human clicks along nicely. Even when Leni and Rafi show up, presenting conflict just waiting to be addressed, De Pelegri and Harari sidestep the main issues to focus on more individual elements.
And then the story takes a strange, almost unnatural turn. The aforementioned complication with the broth turns what was looking to be a slightly wacky take on tolerance into an overly complicated piece of farcical plotting. Naturally, it is the supposed ‘terrorist’ Rafi who ends up, Rube Goldberg-like, delivering the perceived fatalistic blow, and from this point on, Only Human starts to loose its way. It was already almost there to start with, the revelation of the man’s Arab heritage only told to people who couldn’t later benefit the plot’s peculiar permutations. Similarly, the missing Father whose presumed adultery excuses him from the initial meeting, gets to play cog in a confusing array of misunderstandings, disagreements, and inferences. What we thought was going to be an intelligent dissection of the age old conflict between Palestinian and Jew winds up turning into a weird variation of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Said debt to Almodavar is obvious, especially during moments where orgasms and virginity are discussed. Indeed, De Pelegri and Harari seem to suggest that all Spanish females, from the matronly to the career-oriented, require physical satisfaction to be complete. Leni’s love for Rafi seems wholly based on their newly in love desire for non-stop screwing. Similarly, Tania uses casual anonymous sex (she doesn’t even know who fathered her child) as a means of making up for what she didn’t get from her parents. Mother’s main resolve is not that her husband is cheating on her; it’s that, because of her lack of intimacy (and individual sexual release) she drove him into the arms of another. We’re supposed to find all this revelatory, easily explaining all the schizophrenic emotions pouring out of the characters. But Only Human seems to rely on them as a comedy catalyst only.
Yes, it’s that kind of film in the end, a narrative that substitutes craziness for cleverness and hopes we never notice. As the storyline de-evolves, as more convolutions are tossed on top of already overripe situations, we look for some kind of cinematic silver lining, a moment or two when the filmmakers forget that they have dozens of divergent plotpoints dangling in the breeze and simply let the circumstances play out organically. Luckily, De Pelegri and Harari stop mixing things up long enough to let a couple of these instances escape. One sees Tania teaching Rafi the fine art of belly dancing, and even though we know it is nothing but a sleazy seduction, the momentary connection to his culture is sweet and rewarding. Similarly, Leni has a kind of minor breakdown (her past indicates a predisposition to such emotional melodramatics) and when her man confronts her, she lets loose with a string of Anti-Palestinian stereotypes that seem to confirm what everyone has said all along: that is, that she loves the IDEA of being with an Arab more than the Arab she claims to adore.
At their core, these scenes feel real, far more authentic than the slapstick moment where Rafi is ‘molested’ by the blind grandfather, or when a devout David goes paranoid over how his food is prepared. Yet it’s clear that, within the context of a far more serious film, they’d stick out like a sore cinematic thumb. It’s this battle of tones, this war between the meaningful and the madcap that constantly drags Only Human off course. We enjoy the genial goofiness up to a point, and tend to dismiss the moments when histrionics replace civility. But as the over the top antics pile up, as De Pelegri and Harari press the boundaries of believability for the sake of more silliness, we long for the smaller, more intimate scenes.
Perhaps it’s all part of a plan. It could be that, in these times of global tensions, when Palestinian Muslims are viewed as rabid fundamentalists looking to Jihad as an answer to their issues, and Israeli Jews are seen as self-appointed guardians of the region, reducing all other claims to direct attacks on their viability as a nation, our directors determined that spectacle should substitute for substance in any look at the Palestinian/Israeli issue. After all, isn’t any political diatribe easier to digest when one of the characters is walking around town sans pants? Deep down at the heart of Only Human is a really interesting idea: the notion of a Jewish family’s realistic reaction to their daughter’s romance with a bitter philosophical rival. As the Mother character states, “It’s like Romeo and Juliet”. Unfortunately, she was referring to the Shakespeare classic’s lethal ending. Only Human is not quite as deadly. But it’s decision to go goofy instead of genuine leaves us feeling cold instead of connected. Not the best way to get your message across.