There is a colloquialism particular to Israel – “sabra” – which denotes a prickly, weathered desert plant sporting a tough exterior but a soft and sweet interior. More curious is how this word has been put to use – as a distinction between the native-born Israeli and immigrants communicating in heavily accented Hebrew, their emotional and cultural baggage forever trailing behind them. The children of Holocaust survivors who’d journeyed to Israel were born Sabras and they would live out their childhoods in the shadow of their parents' great cataclysm.
Set in Haifa in the summer of 1968, the season of the Six-Day War, Avi Nesher’s “The Matchmaker” is sweet on the outside, a playful fable that almost begins to cross into a bit of magical realism, but then moves into barbed territory, where emotional scars bubble up to the surface and the same love that inspired men and women begins to corrupt them. Teenager Arik (Tuval Shafir) by chance runs into Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), his father’s Romanian schoolmate from “there,” who is a matchmaker extraordinaire. When Bride hires Arik to follow potential clients and make sure they are really looking for love and not just physical satisfaction, the young man must contend with the mounting moral complexities of his work while navigating feelings for his best friend’s rebellious cousin Tamara (Neta Porat).
In time, Arik will come to learn more about the seemingly rootless Bride, as well as the matchmaker’s object of desire, Clara (Maya Dagan), a woman marked by her experiences during the Holocaust. The resulting film plays like a top-notch Lasse Hallström picture but with a more straight-faced, morally ambiguous throughline. Miller invests the enigmatic Bride with a solemn dignity that rarely betrays anger or hysteria, but doesn’t neglect to show the broken man within, buried underneath talks of ideals and the possibilities of love for all, no matter how “peculiar.” In the best scenes in the film, Bride demonstrates his people-reading skills and speaks of returning to a state of childlike love, “something in the heart before it goes bad.”
The matchmaker is decidedly a product of “there,” in this case Romania, and while Arik’s awareness of the Holocaust may be limited to Ka-tzetnik’s The House of Dolls, Bride offers sharp relief to sensationalized stories of suffering as a quiet man bearing a scar stretching across his visage, likely a potent and unspoken reminder of his past. Bride is also a grifter, surviving not on his matchmaking business but on what appears to be the trade of contraband. Living in the Lower City, with his back essentially up against the port of Haifa, Bride can hop on a ship and disappear — as Arik's father (Dov Nanon) says, it's fear that drives these survivors, an inability to move on. But perhaps, in his unyielding quest to find compatible partners and ensure happiness for one and all, the matchmaker looks for a peace that's eluded him for so long.
Meanwhile, Tamara, visiting from the States and adorning herself in decidedly immodest clothes, blaring American music and defying authority, initially represents the kind of “free love” that Bride decries as fakery, a licentious desire for the body over the soul. Whether Tamara is in fact just a symbol or something else will come to light, as will Bride’s feelings for fellow survivor Clara, who makes her living by hosting card games for money and is soon romanced by Meir (Dror Keren), a librarian who at first comes to Bride as a customer. Meir’s growing infatuation with Clara threatens to put Bride’s life at risk, but there are no bad people in “The Matchmaker,” only misguided and scorned lovers of all shapes and sizes.
Nesher wisely avoids stylistic flourishes and allows the actors to dominate the space without resorting to scenery-chewing hysterics. The resulting picture is almost a throwback, an unassuming, kind-hearted tale that shuns cynicism but doesn’t shy from reality. As result, you come to care for Bride, Clara, Arik and Tamara and the risk of even a slight change to their lives becomes unnerving and emotionally resonant. “The Matchmaker” is at heart an unexpectedly complex film about love, but also an examination of Israel in flux, a country with one foot in the past and another in the future – a weight that may never fully vacate Israeli shoulders. [B+]