It is harder to entice The Flower to the movies these days. She’s got a lot going on (as young ladies will) and has opted for an early-to-bed, early-to-rise strategy which she will break—but only if sufficiently motivated. Fortunately, she didn’t have to break it here, since we saw this show on a weekend afternoon, but she was all in for this Israeli movie about a young (formerly atheist) woman whose parents are scheming to split her up with her orthodox Jewish boyfriend. As part of their scheme, they enlist her in watching a similarly young, formerly orthodox woman who has fallen in with literal pagans.
Hence, “the other story”. By Avi Nesher, the director of The Matchmaker, this has all the nuance you’d want from such a difficult story.
Our protagonist is Yonatan (Yuval Segal, Fauda, Zero Motivation) who has returned from the States after a long absence from Israel. His dad, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai, GETT: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem, The Band’s Visit) has summoned him at the behest of his ex-wife Tali (Maya Dagan, Matchmaker) because she is deeply offended by her daughter Anat (Joy Rieger, Live and Become) who has turned away from a righteous atheistic (or at least so-liberal-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-goyim) lifestyle to a deeply orthodox one.
As hostile as Shlomo and Tali are toward religion, Yonatan is more circumspect. His ex- (understandably) and his father (perhaps less so) both paint a picture of him as a master manipulator, a near sociopathic engineer of getting what he wants from people. We never actually see this, as though Yonatan has changed in his time away.
That said, we learn Anat attempted suicide at her bot-mitzvah because Yonatan did not show up. And her life went to ruins when he fled to the U.S., with their only communication being an email every now and again. And we learn that she and her boyfriend were quite the sinners (if I may use Christian parlance) before their severe conversion. The boyfriend is a famous pop star, and the two made racy music videos (as one does), as well as having lots of pre-marital sex, getting high, and doing who knows what else.
Shlomo says to Yonatan (basically), “Since you’re here, why don’t you help me with these couples I have to counsel before they can get a divorce?” Yonatan demurs, since he hasn’t been in practice for a while, having focused on writing books and engineering some kind of social prediction program back in the states, but Shlomo insists and soon Yonatan is counseling a traditional Jewish (conservative but not orthodox, I think) couple, where the woman is not merely resentful but seems somewhat unhinged and the man seems like a nice guy, just a little dweeby and maybe a bit dense. He’s convinced his wife is going to offer his son up as a human sacrifice at one of her pagan rituals.
Nesher artfully moves the story around from character to character: Anat’s pop-star husband is surrounded by groupies, but he keeps his distance, with his other bandmates making sure there are no hangers-on. This makes his conversion seem more genuine, but probing reveals he goes to a dodgy pharmacy in East Jerusalem (apparently the Israeli version of Canadian Drug Websites). Our newly pagan wife has plans to alienate the husband’s son from him as soon as they’re divorced—but on the other hand, he thinks she’s planning to literally kill the son, and his fear drives him to the movie’s most desperate act. Shlomo, while not crazy about Anat’s conversion, has his own hidden motives for calling Yonatan back to Israel. Yonatan himself has his own secret, his own motivations, and his own reasons for his relative contemplativeness.
Anat is certainly the most sincere and straightforward among them all, but at the same time she’s reacting: To her father’s abandonment, to the secular worldview of her mother and grandfather, to the emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle.
It’s a beautiful thing to see it all play out. Nesher eschews the sensational in his storytelling while fully respecting the human tendency to veer toward the dramatic. As a result, he can show everyone with all their flaws without making a cartoon villain out of them. You come away understanding the characters and, shall we say, forgiving their trespasses in the hopes that your own trespasses will be also be forgiven.
Easily in the top 5 movies this year to date.