Dover Kosashvili’s Late Marriage opens with a scene of bickering domesticity. An earthy matriarch gives her slightly crippled husband a shampoo in the tub, scrubbing away heedlessly as he kicks and screams like a child. In its blissless intimacy and offhand warmth, the scene has the familiarity of a quaint, old-marrieds comedy, without the misty scrim of sentiment. But in a movie that ends with a marriage, it’s more than just a rollicking opening — it’s a sober premonition.
Late Marriage, a new comedy from Israel, could be funnier in a lot of ways, and more serious in others. Kosashvili’s gift is his ability to mingle deftly the ridiculous with the sorrowful. Understated where it could be broad, restrained where it could be bathetic, Late Marriage is the kind of movie whose pleasures don’t announce themselves, and, hence, whose greatness might easily be missed. Kosashvili, a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia who moved to Israel in 1972, has made a movie about family, tradition, romance, and generational conflict that shimmers with the glow of the vivid, the authentic.
The outlines hint at a rambunctious, if hackneyed, farce. Thirty-one-year-old Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi) is the shame of his family. Still single and in school (a doctoral candidate in philosophy), the handsome bachelor finds himself dragged by his parents from one match-making summit to another, in their hopes of finally arranging a marriage with a suitable mate. It goes without saying that Zaza is less than receptive to the idea. Even as he meets, at his count, “hundreds” of women, he spends furtive hours at the house of just one: Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), a 34-year-old divorced single mother — or to put it in the blunt terms of his conservative family, damaged goods. When his family uncovers his secret life, tradition and modernity clash head on in appropriate chaos, complete with a home invasion, an apoplectic mama (Lili Kosashvili, the director’s mother), and a sword-swinging uncle.
As wacky as all that sounds, Late Marriage turns out to be an admirably sobering experience. There are two traditional ways this story usually ends. Either young love and modernity triumph over outdated mores, or they fail and one or both lovers meet a tragic, tear-jerking fate. Late Marriage may end with a marriage ceremony, but it avoids the obvious. Kosashvili recognizes that extravagant highs and lows are the stuff of movies; life, which interests him more, tends to give you quiet disappointments and small pleasures.
The same equanimity applies to Kosashvili’s storytelling. Most of the action in Late Marriage takes place in cramped interiors. Garish and cluttered, the living spaces of these middle-class Israelis initially reminded me of the high-strung chintziness of contemporary Australian movies. However, the association isn’t entirely accurate. Kosashvili isn’t interested in heightening anything — his is a resolutely realist movie. Farcical flourishes are present, but they’re never amplified. It’s apparent that Kosashvili is a keen observer of human behavior. He knows there’s no need to spruce up our foibles — they’re funny enough as they are.
Kosashvili’s unsentimental frankness extends all the way to the bedroom. After a half-hour or so of the ritualized stiffness of the family’s forays into matchmaking, the movie smoothly plunges into a sex scene of startling intimacy. No stylized, Adrian Lyne-esque acrobatics here. Kosashvili distills sex to its essence — two lonely people who’ve found each other, comfortable in their closeness, sincere in their affection, and affectlessly erotic in their coupling. The scene strikes like a jolt; it’s messy, rough-and-tumble, and matter-of-factly explicit, and it’s the diametric opposite of the parents’ world of marriage-as-merger and docile wives-to-be.
Refusing to allow his story to lurch into comfortable terrain, Kosashvili has a knack for keeping you on edge. He lets his silences linger a beat too long; he lets scenes play out beyond the point we expect them to end. The movie nails the awkwardness of meeting strangers, the uneasy silences between lovers at a crossroads, the embarrassed hush of party guests seeing their drunken host ramble. The screenplay may at times feel stagebound, but I think the feeling of claustrophobia is deliberate. The image of a hapless Zaza, wedged between two relatives on a couch in a room packed with members of two families discussing a potential “transaction,” is a found metaphor for the movie’s preoccupation with paralysis and the loss of agency in the face of implacable tradition.
What’s wondrous about Late Marriage is its generosity toward all its characters. “Too much importance is given to the heart and love,” bemoans one of Zaza’s relatives. Far from reproaching the old guard, Kosashvili reveals surprising reserves of understanding. The fact that Zaza’s clan all emigrated from Georgia is barely mentioned, but the immigrant experience leaves its unmistakable imprint on the movie. Kosashvili depicts a culture where happiness and romance are little more than distractions from the business of living. It’s a worldview that springs not out of callousness, but out of necessity. For all such an outlook’s faults, Kosashvili takes care never to sneer at its practitioners, always respectful of the fact that everyone has their reasons.
Considering that the quagmire of generational discord it paints seems intractable, Late Marriage manages to actually retain a piquant ambiguity. The closing wedding party scene is suitably poignant and celebratory. After a solitary face-slapping session in the bathroom, Zaza takes the stage, tells the band to play something “bittersweet” and goes off on an intoxicated rant about “the most beautiful woman in the world.” The party on the seeming brink of disaster, daddy saves the day: “Let’s dance!” he screams. His train of thought interrupted, Zaza staggers back down to the floor, rejoining the revelry. From a respectful distance, Koshashvili captures him taking his place in the wedding dance, surrendering to the crowd with drunken abandon, if not quite with glee.