Thursday, February 07, 2008

Coming Soon: Jellyfish

Time and again, Israel’s neighbors have threatened to drive her “into the sea.” Thankfully, they have never fulfilled their threats, but it makes Israelis keenly aware of their Mediterranean coast. That seaside plays a pivotal role in Jellyfish (trailer here), a character study of three women in Tel Aviv directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen.

By its nature Jellyfish does not lend itself to a neat capsule summary. It resembles films like Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction, in which characters cross paths, but their lives rarely intersect. Wisely, Keret & Geffen resist the urge to compulsively parade their characters through “near-miss” scenes, having established their close proximity.

As is often the case with braided stories, not every thread is as successful. The lead storyline involves Batya, a down on her luck waitress who finds herself sheltering an apparently mute little girl found abandoned on the beach. Only Batya’s storyline incorporates elements of magical realism, which gets a bit pretentious late in the film.

Most effective is the story of Joy, a Philippine nurse who finds employment tending to Malka, a difficult and initially mean-spirited patient. Yet they develop a touching relationship, perhaps compensating for their separation from their children—Joy by physical distance, and Malka emotionally so. Ma-nenita De Latorre as Joy and Zharira Charifai as Malka provide Jellyfish’s greatest emotional payoff with some nicely nuanced performances.

The third strand involves a newlywed couple, Michael and Keren (played by Gera Sandler and Noa Knoller, respectively), confined to a Tel Aviv hotel after she breaks her leg during an unlikely accident at their wedding reception. At first they seem hopelessly mismatched, and frankly annoying, but Keret and Geffen bring unexpected depths to their story, redeeming its shaky start.

Jellyfish is a personal story, not a political one. The realities of Israeli history only obliquely intrude when an Alzheimer’s patient Joy briefly nurses asks her son who scarred his face. The Syrians he responds.

Keret and Geffen convey a strong sense of modern Tel Aviv, which contributes to vivid sense memories of the film. To their credit, they created believable characters, not “quirky” constructs. Jellyfish might be a little uneven, but there are some memorable parts in its whole. While not quite as successful as The Band’s Visit, it is certainly another worthy import from Israel.

(Jellyfish opens in New York at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza April 4th.)