February 18, 2020

‘Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club’ Tells a Twisted Love Story

From left: Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Razia Israeli. Photo courtesy of Rock Salt Releasing

In “Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club,” the women who gather for weekly dinner parties have something far more sinister in mind than simply discussing books: The men they invite to the table wind up on the menu. This deliciously macabre Israeli fantasy is surprising, darkly funny and has a lot to say about gender politics, women’s roles, aging and class divide.

The titular female cabal of misandrists takes revenge on men by killing them and turning them into hotdog meat, earning them trophies and “Lordess” status. Aging club member Sophie (Keren Mor) must step up the quality of her male candidates or risk banishment to the lowly Sanitation Department. But she finds herself falling for a handsome target (Yiftach Klein) with his own secret agenda. The cast also includes Leah Koenig, Razia Israeli, Ania Bukstein and Hana Laszlo. 

“It’s the first fantasy film ever made in Israel,” writer-director Emilio Schenker said of his debut feature, which won two Ophir (Israeli Oscar) Awards, worldwide film festival raves, and was No. 3 at the Israeli box office last year. Taking inspiration from Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon’s novella “The Mistress and the Peddler,” which the movie’s literature club discusses, Schenker wrote the script eight years ago, but couldn’t secure funding.

After applying to the Israel Film Fund a dozen times without success, he appealed once more. “You’re giving money to the same films all the time, about the Gaza occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the army,” he protested. “Why can’t you support a young Israeli director who wants to do something different?” He received $100,000, only a fraction of what he needed. Fortunately, his stars, some of the biggest in Israel, “came to work for free because they loved the script and they believed in me,” Schenker said.

Schenker enlisted his father and friends to build sets, his mother as caterer and family and friends as extras. His mother appears on screen, as do his aunts, his 97-year-old grandmother and some friends from her nursing home. “It was fun for everybody because it was a very passionate set,” Schenker said. “And to have such success, it’s like a Cinderella story.”

The cannibalistic element makes it darker than your average fairy tale, but the film’s more gruesome aspects are kept off screen. “I made a successful short film before called ‘Lavan,’ an extremely graphic and scary horror film,” Schenker said. “It won prizes at film festivals around the world. But my mother told me she hated the film because it was too graphic and scary. I wanted to make a film that my mother could enjoy: a film about women, for women.”

“It’s the first fantasy film ever made in Israel. … I wanted to make a film that my mother could enjoy: a film about women, for women.” 

— Emilio Schenker

Growing up with his mother, grandmother and two sisters, Schenker became aware of issues affecting them and worked some of them into the movie. “When you’re an immigrant you suffer from social disadvantage. Each generation of immigrants is lower on the scale. My mother has no pension and no economic security,” he said, “The film deals with that class divide and also aging and being worth less as we grow old.”

Schenker took additional inspiration from three directors whose films, he said, walk “the thin line between irony and comedy and drama and horror.” He cited Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” as “examples of how to mix genres and still find your own tone in it.” He calls Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar “my biggest muse. He tells beautiful stories about women.”

Schenker set his sights on filmmaking in early childhood, when he’d watch TV for hours and use a video rental pass to view as many movies as possible. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, to Argentine parents whose parents fled Poland and Germany and lost family in the Holocaust, Schenker and his family relocated to Israel when he was 10 years old. Adjusting to the move was difficult for Schenker, since he didn’t know a word of Hebrew when he arrived, and it didn’t get any easier when he realized a few years later that he was gay. 

“Even though we lived in a Jewish community in Caracas, my parents were scared that my sisters would marry non-Jewish guys,” he said. “But more importantly, my parents are huge Zionists, even with all the changes in Israel in the last 30 years. We’re not a religious family. The religion in my family is Zionism. But we are very connected to Judaism in our hearts.”

In Los Angeles in advance of “Madam Yankelova’s” release, Schenker is aiming to remake the film in English, and his casting wish list includes Winona Ryder, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Bette Midler and Zendaya. He also hopes to make his next film, “Mother Must Die,” which he describes as a dark fantasy and tragedy-melodrama, in English.

“Madam Yankelova” will be available in mid-July on Amazon, iTunes, DirecTV, Dish, and On Demand, and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime in August. 

“I’m very curious how the audience will react,” Schenker said. “It’s a dream come true for me to have a film released in the States. I hope people will enjoy it. I want to make films that people will love, remember and think about.”

“Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club” opens June 21 at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center. Director Emilio Schenker will participate in the opening-night Q&A.