It’s said that the difference between Israeli cinema and Hollywood is that Hollywood likes to tell the story of a determined individual whereas Israeli movies like to portray a small collective — a family or a circle of friends.
Earlier this decade, Gur Bentwich wrote and directed Up the Wrong Tree, an Israeli movie about a quixotic fellow attempting, in a single-minded Hollywood way, to win his old girlfriend back. I liked it. But I grew up in America. The Israeli public’s reaction was disappointing.
Another reason for that disappointment, though, might be the phenomenon explored in Bentwich’s film about his own family, The Bentwich Syndrome. It appears that the Bentwiches have been a presence in Israel for generations, building a record of achievements and contributions that are curiously overlooked although maybe forgiveably overestimated by some of the family itself.
Gur Bentwich came to the Herzliya Cinematheque this week with his latest movie, called Peaches and Cream. He said he was still half-hearted about the title, although the marketing office thought the public would find it attractive. To me it sounds like a seventies-style comedy about misadventures of puppy love, but actually it’s a semi-autobiographical story in which the protagonist Zuri Shostak, played by writer/director Bentwich himself, is trying to save a movie from being ignored by the public.
The plot is driven by a pair of ticking clocks, one of them literal. The meter of a taxi is running while Shostak, who is locked out of his home, tries to find a friend who will pay his fare. As one friend after another fails him, the movie recalls that famous morality play Everyman where the protagonist finds that as he approaches death, no one he is accustomed to turning to will help him. And in fact, the other ticking clock is the progress of a heart attack that Shostak, preoccupied as he is, fails to take seriously enough. Bentwich explained that the heart attack is autobiographical too; he says he let one go unattended for two days.
Although Peaches and Cream, like Up the Wrong Tree, surrounds the hero with intriguing minor characters, Bentwich also explained that the photography — by using a limited focus — emphasizes that the movie is a portrayal of one person’s point of view. In a way it recalls All That Jazz as Shostak’s perceptions occasionally slip out of the day-to-day into a vision of a sometimes alluring alternative state in which a beautiful woman appears to him.
Nobody is paying for this review, so I will boldly mention race. The beautiful woman is actress Ester Rada, of Ethiopian parentage, and her character is a stewardess on an Icelandic airline. The contrast represented by the black woman helps strengthen the paradox in which the other world seems out of joint but hints at comfort and even triumph as well as doom.
Other characters are played, in a few cases, by fellow film directors. Bentwich remarked at the Cinematheque that he likes bringing in directors as actors because they understand that the director can’t afford to have the actors interfering a lot. Bentwich’s judgment worked well enough to earn Peaches and Cream a nomination for Best Casting among its many nominations for the Ophir Awards to be presented later this month — a few days after the movie officially opens.
The fictional director Shostak insists — against professional advice — on publicizing his movie the old-fashioned way, including passing out stickers for fans to place in public locations. And indeed, at the Cinemematheque, Bentwich passed out stickers for his own movie, featuring seventies-style psychedelic typography. With Peaches and Cream, will he defeat the Bentwich Syndrome? If he does, it will have been on his own terms.