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Moshe Mizrahi is one of the unsung heroes of Israeli cinema, criminally under-appreciated in Israel, who won an Oscar directing a film in France, and has been able to do little work since the 1970s.
Mizrahi arrived in pre-Israel Palestine, with his family, from Alexandria, Egypt. They were a Sepharadi family, who spoke, like the family in the film, Ladino, a language which combines Spanish (Sepharadi means "Spanish" in Hebrew) and Hebrew, just as the Ashkenazim speak Yiddish, a combination of German and Hebrew. The term "Sepharadim" is often misused as any Jew coming from Arab or Muslim countries. The correct usage is those who are the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 like my wife's family, who came from Greece and Turkey in the 19th century. (Many ended up in the Netherlands, and, in fact, the first synagogue in North America is Sepharadi, founded by Dutch Jews in Rhode Islane).
The Sepharadic Jews were a large and successful community in Alexandria, part of the vibrant cultural mix of the city before Nasser led a wave of nationalism that all but destroyed the cosmopolitan nature of the city. The Jews who came in the 19th century became almost aristocracy in Jerusalem, families like Navon (as in the former Israeli President), Banai (as in the family of actors and musicians), and others. But those who came later, like Mizrahi's family, became second class citizens, looked down upon by the Ashkenazi Zionist establishment.
The film is semi-autobiographical, and presents a fascinating picture of this society in the days leading up to independence. Mizrahi was, like many Israeli directors in the '60s and early '70s, influenced by the French New Wave, and this film shows the strong influence of François Truffaut, especially "The 400 Blows".
During the time the film was produced one can see a certain genre developing in Israel, which was called "Bureikas films". These films, which were marketed to the so-called "Eastern Jews", were low-brow comedies, which had a "Eastern" (Moroccan, Iraqi, Yemeni, etc.), who was simple, but was able to outsmart the Ashkenazim. Often there was a love interest, and a message that love can conquer the differences between the different Jewish ethnic groups (much as in American romantic comedies from the depression, such as "It Happened One Night", with class instead of Ethnic groups).
But Mizrahi was looking for something else. Unlike the "bureikas comedies" of the period (such as "Charlie ve'hetzi"), he presented his ethnic tension within a economic reality that was much more honest, and critical, of Israeli society. This gives the film a depth seldom seen in Israeli films from that period.
The one weakness of the film is the actor playing the lead character of Sammy, Offer Shalhin. I think that Mizrahi was looking for his Jean-Pierre Léaud to play his Antoine Doinel. He wasn't a professional, and was very weak in the role, especially when cast along with some of the best actors in the history of Israeli stage and film. He never appeared in films, but has become a fairly successful composer and musician, still working in Tel Aviv.
Gila Almagor, the queen of Israeli stage, was in many good films, and played Assi Dayan's psychiatrist's psychiatrist in the original version of "In Treatment". Yosef Shiloah, who was born in Iraq, and who died recently, was also a brilliant stage actor, who appeared in many lesser know films. Avner Hezkiahu is also well know for his stage work. And there's Sheike Ophir, actor, pantomime, comic, whatever. He played the lead in Mizrahi's "Abu el Banat", where he plays a father of daughters, who only wants a son, who will say kaddish at his grave. He also created one of the best known, and best loved characters in Israeli film, in Ephraim Kishon's "Ha Shoter Azulai". Together it's wonderful ensemble acting, which, as I mentioned, buts the young lead actor at a disadvantage.
(Just one more comment, much of the dialog, especially when they talk around the courtyard, is in Ladino. The older people especially speak it, while the younger ones more quickly go into Hebrew. If possible, pay attention the language being spoken.)
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