February 22, 2020

Seeking connection, family mystery ensues

Israeli director and writer Shemi Zarhin likes to explore family relationships and dynamics in his films, and in his latest work, “The Kind Words,” he immerses himself in the topic to a point that might challenge Sigmund Freud.

The focal point of the film’s web of relationships consists of three siblings, between 30 and 40 and residing in Jerusalem.

The oldest is Netanel, who has become ultra-Orthodox primarily to please his devout wife, while the younger brother, Shai, has come out as gay, to the dismay of Netanel.

In the middle, with the most problems and screen time, is Dorona, who has suffered the latest in a series of miscarriages as the film opens, and takes her frustration out on her handsome and devoted husband, Ricky.

The siblings’ father has deserted his wife and family after 30 years of marriage to wed a younger woman, and the abandoned mother’s long undiagnosed cancer leads to her death.

When the father’s new wife expresses her wish to have children, he visits a doctor, who finds his patient’s sperm count too low to impregnate any woman, present or past.

The diagnosis leaves the siblings with the unnerving question as to the identity of their biological father, or, as one of them puts it, “I’m an orphan; I don’t want to be a bastard, too.”

One clue to the puzzle is that their Algerian-born mother left for trips to Paris, supposedly to visit her sister, exactly nine months before the birth of each of the three siblings.

With their mother dead, Dorona persuades her two brothers to track down their mother’s liaison, heading first for Paris to interrogate their aunt, their mother’s sister.

From there, the trail leads to Marseilles and to the apartment of Maurice, also born in Algeria and apparently the dead mother’s longtime lover, with roots as an Arab Muslim.

As the siblings importune Maurice to answer their urgent questions, he declines any answers. In desperation, and in search of her new self-identity, Dorona sneaks back into Maurice’s apartment while he’s away, and finds a possible clue to the relationship between Maurice and her mother.

The cast of “The Kind Words” is impressive, starting with Rotem Zissman-Cohen as the conflicted Dorona, and joined in supporting roles by two of Israel’s finest veteran thespians, Levana Finkelstein as the mother and Sasson Gabai as her runaway husband.

Zarhin is held in considerable esteem in Israel and abroad as director of six feature films, numerous TV episodes and the author of one novel.

Two of his earlier films, “Aviva, My Love” and “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomo,” also focused on family ties and were warmly praised by the Journal at the time of their release and after lengthy conversations with Zarhin.

This time, the interview was a bit more difficult, and not only because the Skype connection between interviewer and interviewee worked poorly.

It was obvious that Zarhin had invested a lot of thought and emotion in his “Kind Words” characters and was impatient with “simplistic” questions about the plot, or whether his own descent from long-ago immigrants from North Africa and Europe influenced the delineation of his main characters.

However, in his “Director’s Notes” for the film, he explained his approach, as a director and as a human being, to his film’s characters, and his words are worth quoting to understand his intentions.

“I love stories where life is lived ‘on the edge,’ ” he writes. “I love reality’s ability to surprise until life often seems like an unrealistic movie, and reality itself acts like a wonderland. I especially love the protagonists’ amazed, stunned expressions every time they are faced with a new, extreme turn of the plot.

“These expressions reveal the exaggerated, childish confidence they have in their day-to-day routines, as well as their distress in the face of any change or discovery. It makes me laugh, it makes me sad, and mainly it makes me love them very much.

“But it also makes me worries. What will happen when they find out that the truth they are looking for is a pile of lies and prejudices? What will be their fate when they discover there is no consolation in the facts of the past, which only imprison the present and enslave the future? And love, even though it exists and is deep, is not always enough? And whether eventually they will realize that their lives and their identities depend solely on their desire?

“A strange thing happened to me: the production of ‘The Kind Words’ is long over and I find that I am still worried about the characters who have become my immediate family. Maybe it expresses concern that I have for my kids, myself, and for the place where I live.”

“The Kind Words” opens July 1 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and at the Town Center in Encino.