Monday, May 09, 2011

IFF ’11: Intimate Grammar

It is tough being a kid in 1960’s Israel, especially with a mother like Aharon Kleinfeld’s Mommy Dearest. Yet, the socially awkward protagonist might be a kid forever unless he starts growing again in Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar (trailer here), a somewhat odd Mother’s Day programming choice for the 2011 Israel Film Festival.

After witnessing the horrors of war and a Soviet labor camp, Kleinfeld’s father Moishe is a bit distant. His paternal grandmother is slowly sinking into dementia, but she has her occasional moments. His sister Yochi is loving and supportive, but she also suffers from self-esteem issues. His mother Hindale is definitely the verbal one—and how. Her specialty seems to be belittling her children, both intentionally and inadvertently.

Even Kleinfeld’s relationship with Gidon, an ardent Young Socialist, is tested when they begin an ostensibly friendly Jules and Jim-style courstship of Yaeli, an attractive ballet dancing classmate. As his parents’ son, Kleinfeld is not very good at matters of the heart, but perhaps he might pick-up something from his father’s open flirtations with the attractive neighbor across the street. Coming of age will be painful for the boy, if it happens at all.

There are certain times when the last thing anyone needs to hear is “I told you so,” particularly from one’s mother. Indeed, the consistent callousness, bordering on outright cruelty, of Hindale Kleinfeld is difficult to fully accept. Of course, if you can buy into it, Kleinfeld’s profound emotional troubles are only too easy to believe.

Roee Elsberg is convincingly bright and intelligent as Kleinfeld, which helps keep the audience invested during his periodic bouts of self-defeating behavior. As his dread mother, Orly Zilbershatz is absolutely ferocious, in a way that both helps and hinder’s Grammar dramatic integrity. Perhaps surprisingly, Yael Sgerski’s makes quite an enduring impression playing Kleinfeld’s older sister with understated humanity. It is unusual to see the older-younger sibling relationship portrayed with such love and empathy at this age, but that is what works best in the film.

Though David Grossman’s source novel is often compared to The Tin Drum, Bergman largely plays down the possible fantastical implications of Kleinfeld’s stunted growth. The boy is just small for his age. It happens. The film also implies a subtle critique of the Kumbaya culture so pronounced in 1960’s Israel. Kleinfeld is not a joiner, either of the scouts or the Socialists. He certainly is not cut out for kibbutz life. However, he pays a price for his individualism.

Art director Ido Dolev has a nice eye for period details and Biniamin Nimrod Chiram’s lens gives it an almost Rockwellesque color palette. Yet, there is no getting around the dour nature of the proceedings. A prestigious production with fine ensemble performances, Grammar is ultimately more sad than nostalgic. Recommended with much respect and a little affection, it screens again this Thursday (5/11) and the following Tuesday (5/17) at the 25th Israel Film Festival.