In 1968 Haifa, a teenage boy gets a summer job with a Holocaust survivor who makes ends meet by brokering marriages and smuggling goods. Throughout the summer, the mysterious matchmaker takes the boy on a dangerous coming of age ride into the deepest underbelly of Haifa.
ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL: Israeli writer-director Avi Nesher’s film is a bracingly funny and poignant story set largely in the bustling port of Haifa in 1968, when the Holocaust casts a long shadow.
Inspired by the 2008 novel When Heroes Fly by Haifa-born Amir Gutfreund, whose parents are Holocaust survivors, The Matchmaker artfully tackles themes such as guilt, survival, love and unrequited love, but with a deliciously light touch that balances the underlying tragedy.
Nesher has created a Fellini-esque world of exotic, vividly realised characters, featuring superb performances from the ensemble cast.
The film opens in Haifa in 2006 as the city is bombarded with Lebanese missiles. Middle-aged writer Arik Burstein (Eyal Shechter) learns his former mentor and friend Yankele Bride (Adir Miller) has died, leaving him money and property.
The narrative flashes back to 1968 when 15-year-old Arik (Tuval Shafir) thinks only of turning 18 and joining the Army. He’s introduced to the seedier side of the city when he meets Yankele, a Romanian immigrant who was a childhood friend of his father’s.
Yankele is a matchmaker who specialises in finding partners for what could be described as the less attractive lonely hearts; his more profitable sideline is smuggling goods.
Discovering Arik’s passion for crime novels, Yankele hires him to spy on prospective clients to ensure each is unattached and, as he puts it, not merely in search of 'hanky panky."
Much of the humour revolves around Yankele’s sales spiel. He insists he’ll give his clients 'what you need, not what you want," assures each that he or she is like a gold ring that deserves a diamond setting, warns that 'love at first sight is divorce at first sight," and asks rhetorically, 'Who needs handsome?"
Among his ideal matches are men with a limp who can’t run away with other women and a mute woman who can’t argue at home.
There is plenty of pathos in Yankele’s love and yearning for Clara (Maya Dagan), an attractive, elegant blonde who helps to coach his clients in social skills and organises illegal gambling nights. Like Yankele, Clara survived the Holocaust but seems incapable of having a relationship and is stricken with guilt for not being able to care for her son, who lives on a kibbutz.
Yankele, Clara and Arik’s father seldom speak about their wartime experiences, referred to obliquely as 'there," but Yankele does tell Arik one hair-raising story.
Another deeply affecting character is Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), a woman of short stature who runs the local cinema which only screens romances, and was subjected to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele's experiments during the war. A remarkably cheerful and upbeat woman, Sylvia entreats Yankele to find a suitor for her, which turns out to be a heart-breaking mission.
A parallel story follows Arik’s relationship with his slightly older, free-spirited, spunky cousin Tamara (Neta Porat), who lives in the US and reluctantly spends the summer with his family. Tamara espouses free love, swears, speaks her mind and listens to bands like Steppenwolf and Cream, challenging the conservative orthodoxy in Israel. But her character is the least well developed, more the cliché of a rebel than a well-rounded teenager.
A stand-up comic, Miller is wonderful as the wily matchmaker who can’t find a match for himself. Shafir is note-perfect as the young Arik. Dagan invests the tormented Clara with a mix of fragility and despair and Bat-el-Papura is endearing as the lovelorn Sylvia.