First I would like to note that the Decade List at Fin de cinema was greatly helpful in learning of this and many other films from the decade that was which I was otherwise completely unaware of.
Maybe you will be surprised when I tell you that this decade produced a great and hilarious Israeli comedy, but you might be less surprised when you find out that is made by and about Georgian emigrants. Or are you still surprised? Do you not know of Otar Iosseliani? Do you even read this blog? Whatever, who cares, let’s talk about the film. The film is structured in segments with distinct tones which congeal in the final segment into a brilliantly caustic happy ending, an ending which demands the presence of each preceding element and to which each preceding element is, in my estimation, a perfect fit. The film opens with comically bickering old people, a scene rendered blackly comic soon afterward when you realize that it is the collective mission of the protagonist’s family to subject him to just such a relationship for the rest of his life. After this there is a young, beautiful, sexy, strong willed girl who the family hopes will be wooed by the protagonist; this is not a Hollywood film; after the girl’s family subtly laughs off the protagonist’s family’s attempts the girl is never seen again - but since this absence is never made certain until the film’s final sequence the specter of this potential pairing hovers over the proceeding events, adding the first (or second or tenth) layer of uneasy complexity to this tale of conflicting emotions. If you will allow me to jump directly to the end, the bride-to-be is visibly older, and perhaps less beautiful than either this first girl or the girl who is to become the film’s most important character. I don’t say ‘beautiful’ to be superficial, of course, I say this because that term plays a great importance in establishing a multifaceted instance of dramatic irony, an irony which means one thing to the audience and may potentially mean several different and perhaps opposing things to the family members who were present for the events of the film. The dramatic irony between the family and the wedding audience establishes the importance of the film’s preceding events, for the complexities of the way he uses the term ‘beautiful’ are completely lost on them and the dramatic irony generated by the ambiguity of interpretation between family, groom, and viewer establishes the film as a tantalizing work of black comedy steeped in ambivalences so deep-seated that the son can no longer call his mother beautiful without the word’s intended meaning being forever rendered opaque. But it’s a happy ending! On the surface, anyway.
If you will allow me to reorient your focus to a point in the middle of the film, there is a particular moment where I thought that the film was about to spiral outward into a chaotic mess of screwball-esque antics that seems a crucial turning point on reflection. I think I can be forgiven for having false expectations, but I think there is something to be gleaned from the implications found in this twist of expectation. The first act of the film is dedicated to a proactive attempt by the protagonist’s family to change his marital status, but the attempt sputters and their efforts are framed as yet another hapless family left wanting. After the playful and unexpectedly warm bedroom scene between the protagonist and his lover the next family setup could certainly show the family’s attempts unwinding ever further, thereby showing the power of true love to break the bonds of tradition and whatever other cliché you’d like to toss out – that doesn’t happen. It seems like it will happen, though, as the older men in the family seem heavily conflicted about the demands of tradition and seem unlikely candidates to mount a successful frontal assault, even losing the element of surprise and being rendered foolish in their attempts to hide. These implications linger into the confrontation itself as the family walks in awkwardly wordless and brandishes a sword in a display of force which far exceeds any reasonable expectations of action, an act of unquestionable overcompensation. It has all the makings of a farce, but something peculiar happens. Actually, nothing happens, and that is peculiar. Their show of force isn’t halted and they stumble out as awkwardly as they stumbled in, but the protagonist’s inability to make a grand gesture, to make a choice that will put himself at risk, dooms him completely. There are layers here to dig through – his lack of employment and dependence on his family, his refusal to take a stand as a man bound by duty or a man bound by love, the strength of character of his lover, but that is a topic for another time. What is at issue here is how the film takes a set of actions befitting a screwball comedy and turns them into a thoroughly depressing spectacle of reckless oppression and heart-wrenching failure. In fact, the issue may merely be that the family’s silly antics are contextualized within a world inhabited by living, breathing people. Even puffed up so full of hot air that their forcefulness could be relieved by a single pinprick the family prevails because there are so many elements working below the surface which cause the protagonist to do nothing, and that is just barely too little. Without a bursting bubble the farce turns tragic, destroys a relationship which provided the film’s only moments of warmth and untarnished levity, and sets the stage for an ending with a multitude of conflicts boiling just below the surface of every phrase turned.
Between the grand confrontation and the wedding there is a small but crucial exchange which to me confirms the brilliance of the film’s dramatic construction. The participants in this conflict are the film’s most stark contrasts, the strong, independent single mother who has to bear the double burden of being threatened with a sword and bear the knowledge of her daughter being subjected to such a frightening series of events and the protagonist’s mother, the most stubborn, spiteful, and vain member of the family. The protagonist's mother's own experiences are informed by the same situation that she has had to ‘endure’ from her husband’s past, she is the least impressed by the beauty of her son’s lover, and she seems the most troubled by the reflection upon her family of her son’s standing. Her portrayal is not a flattering one, to be sure, but when some parents find their child and their culture threatened they are capable of morphing into mindless beasts. Perhaps it was not much of a transformation for her, it’s hard to say. Regardless, without their particular natures their confrontation would take on entirely different meanings and would be a far less potent illustration of the type of bitterly ambiguous statements that the film’s writer and director seems to have mastered. If the protagonist’s lover were less strong then she would have taken him back, and if the protagonist’s mother seemed to have a shred of compassion in her then what she says would be far less ambiguous. With the characters being as they are, though, it is impossible to tell whether the mother’s regret over speaking with her son’s lover is due to the realization that she has done great harm to a woman she now sees is strong and good or whether the regret stems from the newfound knowledge about her son’s relative weakness. Given that the mother’s idea of restitution for excessive force in excessive numbers in the privacy of their own home is a giant teddy bear it’s difficult for me to believe the former, but it’s certainly a possibility of any sane individual. I never got the implication that the marital customs portrayed in the film were meant to drive people to sanity, though, and there is nothing strange to my mind about a petulant mother having eyes only for her son and his failings nor to a strong willed single mother who refuses to tolerate those who are unwilling or unable to protect her daughter. The film makes sense, to me, even while the traditions do not, and if the point of the film is to sensibly make the case for the senselessness of the traditions then the writer/director has succeeded with a subtle comic touch, a brutal tragic punch, and a disconcerting slap of black comic confusion in a conclusion for the ages, a depressingly happy ending which uses ambivalence and dramatic irony as if they were as simple as rote exposition.