Ensemble Israeli drama overwhelms by inches
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Shira Geffen & Etgar Keret
Cast: Sarah Adler, Noa Knoller, Ma-Nenita De Latorre
This weekend, the Israeli Film Festival returns to the Guild Cinema in Nob Hill. Presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Mexico, the five-day festival will present a trio of cutting-edge Israeli films. Beaufort is a historical drama zeroing in on the Israeli Army’s brief occupation of a 12th century Lebanese fort, which marked the start of the first Lebanon war. The Bubble is a popular tale of sexually progressive twentysomethings living in Tel Aviv’s hippest neighborhood. Jellyfish is a half-dreamy drama about three very different Tel Aviv women whose intersecting lives highlight their long-unspoken sadness.
Jellyfish is a collaborative effort between writer/actress Shira Geffen (star of the Israeli TV series “Twentysomething”) and writer/actor Etgar Keret (who recently penned Wristcutters: A Love Story). The film is an actor-heavy mosaic of intersecting characters, putting it in the same category as Robert Altman’s Nashville, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Paul Haggis’ Crash. The locale in this instance is the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv. There, Geffen and Keret send their camera drifting into the lives of several local residents. Chief among these is Batia (Sarah Adler), Keren (Noa Knoller) and Joy (Ma-Nenita De Latorre).
Batia is a somnambulant waitress working a crummy job catering weddings. As the film opens, her boyfriend leaves her, moving out of their ramshackle apartment for reasons unstated. Keren, on the opposite end of the spectrum it would seem, is a newlywed who has just gotten married to her longtime beau Michael (Gera Sandler). An unfortunate accident at the wedding reception leaves Keren in a leg cast and unable to participate in a planned Caribbean honeymoon. Joy looks to be the odd woman out here, a sweet-natured Filipino immigrant who lands a job working as a caretaker for an elderly Jewish lady. But it is Joy’s sad life of longing that ties her to our other two protagonists.
Though it takes up a scant 78 minutes of screentime, Jellyfish is a slow, contemplative and extremely poetic film filled with symbolism and metaphor. The film’s title metaphor comes up several times (along with other aquatic images such as the ocean, boats, rain, broken water pipes and floatation devices) and holds some of the film’s more elusive meaning. (One possible interpretation is the fact that jellyfish don’t move much under their own power and are simply pushed along by the tides--not a bad stand-in for our trio of seemingly adrift heroines.)
One day, while lingering on the beach, Batia stumbles across a mute 5-year-old girl. Unable to locate her parents, Batia takes her in--which stirs the young woman’s muted maternal instincts but causes more stress on her already unraveling life. Keren, meanwhile, finds herself stuck in a less-than-ideal seaside hotel. Unable to make the most of her dreamed-of honeymoon, she finds herself increasingly critical of her new groom. For her part, Joy tries her best to adjust to her new job (and her rather difficult client). Despite her most stoic efforts, she finds herself increasingly homesick and wishing she could be there for her young son, who appears in her life only as a distant voice hanging on a telephone line.
Our three main characters cross briefly, as is the norm for this genre, but their paths are fleeting and the film builds to no shattering denouement. In this case, that’s probably a blessing. These tissue scraps of story with their melancholy emotions, delicate senses of humor and poetic visual and linguistic curlicues would be crushed under the weight of some heavy narrative. Jellyfish is not about big crises or cosmic coincidences. Instead, the film simply allows its characters room to breathe or cry or think--a rare thing in today’s cinema. Though it sounds arty and intellectual on paper, in practice, it is not. The characters on display in Jellyfish are all relatably down to earth. Like a tide coming in to shore (to add another damp metaphor to the pile), Jellyfish slowly overwhelms by inches. It’s a downbeat film, but one that gradually makes way for a trio of hopeful endings.
Beaufort screens Saturday (9:15 p.m.), Sunday and Monday (2 and 6:15 p.m.). Jellyfish screens Sunday and Monday (4:40 and 8:40 p.m.). The Bubble screens Tuesday and Wednesday (4, 6:15 and 8:30 p.m.).