Mabul (The Flood) is an award winning Israeli film that has just opened this year’s Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
The word is commonly associated with the great Flood in Noah’s time and it is that portion of the Bible that the young bar-mitzvah boy, Yoni, is studying for his upcoming rite of passage. He is the fulcrum in a movie about family relations, coming of age, marital dysfunction, friendship and community support.
Yoni’s father has lost his job as an airline pilot and has been concealing that poorly from his wife and son who clearly sense that he is lying. Yoni’s mother runs a day care center and finds consolation from her unhappy marriage in an affair with the father of one of the children in her care; Yoni is earning money by selling homework assignments in several different subjects but he is being shaken down by the school bullies. The final straw is the return of Yoni’s older autistic brother who has been institutionalized for most of his life but has to come home because the institution is failing.
Several of these themes are sensitively explored by skillful actors who make you feel the multiple tensions of a tightening vise of problems without clear solutions. We see the heartbreak of a severely disabled teenager re-entering family life without the ability to interact or understand what he is doing. Losing sight of him for just a few minutes proves disastrous as he inadvertently wrecks a chicken coop, attracting the cynosure of the village and the loss of confidence in the mother’s ability to run the day care center. Yoni must subsequently shoulder some of the responsibility for his brother and discovers that the one way he can get through to him is through sound and song. Startlingly, the autistic brother, Tomer, has learned Yoni’s haftorah and can chant it along with him. It is at this point that we understand what the end of the movie will be, but before we get there, we must see far too many sub-plots that weaken the movie and turn it into melodrama instead of a carefully calibrated slice of life.
This is a film that was made once before as a shorter version; it now needs to be edited again, eliminating the horrific actions of the school kids who send Tomer into the ocean in a rowboat, the actions of the adulterous husband’s son, the sudden awakening of the husband to his self-indulgent, addictive personality. We don’t need an actual flood to understand the family’s precarious situation - metaphors always work best with a fleeting touch instead of hammer-blows. It’s no surprise that the film ends with Tomer singing along with a happy Yoni at his bar mitzvah and with bolts of lightning striking the heavens while the family stands united at the village party There are so many strong performances and well defined characters in this movie that it’s a shame to see it succumb to cornball mush and forfeit its daring in dealing with several difficult subjects. This is a movie that deserves a more thoughtful resolution so that we may genuinely feel the anguish and strength of people in insoluble binds without the cop-out of a Hallmark ending.
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