February 22, 2020

Hope and romance bloom in the desert in ‘Wedding Doll’

The title “Wedding Doll” may lead the unwary film fan to anticipate a risqué musical comedy, but this Israeli movie is actually something much deeper.

Set in a small, rather forlorn town in Israel’s Negev desert, the film revolves around a young woman left with a fairly mild mental handicap by a childhood brain injury.

At 24, Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt) is lovely to look at, with a smile that lights up not just a room but the brooding desert outside. She works, apparently contentedly, in a small factory, doing the rather unglamorous but necessary job of cutting and packaging rolls of toilet paper.

After work, she takes the leftovers from her day’s labor and fashions little dolls, invariably outfitted in wedding gowns. It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that the dolls express Hagit’s own yearnings, specifically her fervent hope to someday marry the factory owner’s handsome son, Omri (Roy Assaf).

Reality is somewhat different. Hagit lives with her mother, Sarah, who is divorced and works as a chambermaid at a local hotel. Sarah’s main focus is to protect her daughter at all costs — from the neighborhood kids’ taunts of “weirdo” to any attempt of independence by Hagit.

But occasionally, Hagit escapes the surveillance to spend long, largely silent evenings with Omri at the top of a hill overlooking the Negev, which takes on a beauty of its own at night.

Omri is a decent sort and is genuinely fond of Hagit, but he is afraid to let anyone, not least his family, know of a possible liaison with her.

But nothing can squelch Hagit’s hopes, and she fashions a wedding dress of her own, whose striking feature is a hoop skirt decorated entirely with actual toilet rolls.

“Wedding Doll” is the first feature by the film’s director, producer and scriptwriter, Nitzan Gilady, 46, who previously made four documentaries that have won 13 international awards.

Gilady knows something about what it means to be an outsider. The son of immigrants from Yemen, he was born in Beersheba, in the northern Negev, and was taunted by classmates in first grade, more for pronouncing certain Hebrew words with his parental accent than for his dark skin.

He also came out early as gay, and has a younger brother who returned from war with post-traumatic stress disorder and was thereafter fiercely overprotected by their father.

In a phone call from Paris, Gilady described his early ambition to become an actor and to study at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre.

“My ambition was to become a Robert De Niro or a classical Shakespearean actor, but because of my appearance I was always cast as a terrorist,” Gilady said. So he decided to become a director. Unable to afford a university education, he bought a video camera and started to “direct” an actress friend.

For the setting of “Wedding Doll,” Gilady returned to the isolated Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon, where he spent part of his army service.

In casting the key role of Hagit, Gilady interviewed more than 40 aspirants and was still searching when he recalled a young Israeli actress, Rosenblatt, whom he had seen in one of her earlier movies. Once picked for the role, Rosenblatt put in a rigorous four months with the director before shooting began.

“We worked on my voice, my walk and my smile,” she recalled in a phone interview. As Hagit, “The smile is more than my own; it comes from the inside and tries to say, ‘I’m a good person, I’m a nice person.’ ”

Rosenblatt’s smile — and performance — earned her a best actress Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar. The film had nine nominations in all.

Not content just with acting, the 30-year-old descendant of immigrants from Iran, Poland and Belgium is looking for additional artistic outlets. Rosenblatt is studying screenwriting and directing at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem but hasn’t decided on her ultimate career. However, she said, “It will have to be one of the three fields.”

Gilady faced no indecision in casting the role of Sarah, Hagit’s mother, after Asi Levi, one of Israel’s foremost actresses, agreed to take the part.

“Wedding Doll” opens April 15 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.