CIFF 2010: 'The Matchmaker' (Avi Nesher, 2010)
At a time when many Israeli films are getting attention for displaying the harsh and ambiguous realities of war, The Matchmaker is an anomaly. The film is a sweet and heartwarming coming of age tale that paints Israel in warm tones without the help of rose-tinted glasses.
The Matchmaker opens with a scene where an elderly father and his middle-aged son drive past a burning car. It's 2006, and Haifa -- Israel's largest city in the north -- is feeling the affects of the second war with Lebanon.
This is, however, a brief aside. The Israeli film community has gained international prominence thanks to a number of movies about the country's military history. But, unlike Waltz with Bashir or Lebanon, The Matchmaker is not about war. As the film's title would imply, it's about finding love: war is a part of the history of the nation, but love is what drives many of the characters in this charming film.
Still, grief is a part of the film's narrative, as the father and son learn in the beginning that a man from their past has died. The news causes the son, Arik Burstein, to recall when a man known as the Matchmaker curiously entered and altered his life.
In the summer of 1968, a teenaged Arik (Tuval Shafir) decides to play a trick on an older gentleman by the name of Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), who meets Arik while peddling his services as a matchmaker. Arik tells Yankele he has a sister with webbed hands, and when the earnest Yankele approaches Arik's father, Yossi, they discover they were classmates in Romania before World War II broke out.
Rather than tell Arik's parents about their son's fibbing, Yankele decides to take the boy under his wing to spy on his customers and see if they are in deed in need of love. The experience brings the young man to Haifa's "Lower City," filled with a vibrant pedestrian culture and seedy underbelly that Arik, a budding mystery writer, immediately becomes entranced with. It also brings Arik closer to those whose scars from the Holocaust have not quite healed: though the Holocaust is spoken about frequently and openly today, it's interesting to see how the horror affected Israelis during the country's infancy.
Perhaps that is what makes The Matchmaker such an interesting and powerful narrative. Movies that dwell on an idyllic past, or the "coming of age" narratives are a dime a dozen in the U.S. The films that border on nostalgia come quick and fast in this country. But at 62, Israel has barely been around long enough for something like nostalgia to take place. Fortunately, The Matchmaker doesn't cripple itself by looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, but with all the aches and pains of a recent trauma still fresh.
Of course, it makes a film like The Matchmaker pretty important in the spectrum of Israeli cultural output. In 2010, many Holocaust survivors are on their last legs, and a new generation of people around the world will be born without intimately knowing those affected by Hitler's hand. As many openly question the need for the state of Israel, The Matchmaker gives many an answer: the film portrays Israel as a land that helped those who survived concentration camps find a home, and gave millions a place to raise a family upon Jewish values in an open environment. Many recent Israeli films question the country's military involvement in other countries, but The Matchmaker shows what those serving in the army are fighting for in the first place. The needs, hopes and dreams aren't unlike those of others across the world, they just happen to live in a part of the world marred by bloodshed.
Perhaps part of my interest in The Matchmaker is deeply involved in my personal history in the region. My father was a few years older than the film's fictional Arik character in 1968, and the film breathed life into a world I've long seen in pictures and heard about from my dad. Moreover, it's nice to see a film that portrays Israeli life in such a warm and loving manner: Israel isn't exactly the most beloved country in the world, and while films like Waltz with Bashir have shown Westerners the existential crises of some Israelis, The Matchmaker portrays Israelis in an ultimately relatable light.
As someone who is quite liberal when it comes to the political situation in Israel, I'm sometimes criticized by outspoken Israeli supporters. So, it's nice to find a film like The Matchmaker: finally, there's a film that speaks to the kindness and heart of Israelis, and remind me why I care about the country in the first place. The Matchmaker may not cover the same narrative ground as a film like Waltz with Bashir, but the movie's core is just as powerful.