THE ARTS 02.20.09
THE ARTS 02.20.09

Israeli family sitting Shiva finds all its enemies within

An unflinching Israeli drama that plays out over several days in 1991, “Shiva” bores in on a large Moroccan Jewish family rubbed raw by the unexpected death of the eldest brother and Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks.

The incendiary domestic tale is distinguished by no-holds-barred acting by a veritable who’s who of Israeli and French cinema, and pithy, pointed dialogue that turns even small talk into potential grenades.

The sight of gas masks and the occasional sound of air raid sirens elevate the tension level, but it becomes increasingly apparent that the greatest threat to the middle-age Ohayon clan is not the external enemy. This family is more likely to be done in by its own longstanding, long-hidden jealousies and resentments

Scenes from “Shiva”: In photo above, Ronit Elkabetz (center), from the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit,” plays a grieving sibling. Below, mourners gather at Maurice’s gravesite in the opening scene. photos/courtesy of contra costa jewish film festival

It might not be the most original metaphor for contemporary Israel and the seemingly intractable gulfs between hawks and doves and secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, but it’s darned effective.

“Shiva” screens as the late show on opening night, Feb. 28, of the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival.

Written and directed by the sister-brother tandem of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz as the sequel to their 2004 film, “To Take a Wife,” “Shiva” doesn’t follow the usual path of dishing up revelations about the deceased. It’s enough for us to deduce that the party-hearty, 50-something Maurice was the glue and the diplomat who bound his eight siblings in peaceful coexistence.

Maurice is barely in the ground before fissures appear, with Haim (Moshe Ivgy) confiding to his wife that his factory is about to go bankrupt. He’s worried about his brothers who’ve lived well on the fruits of the business, even if they weren’t co-owners but employees.

Meir (Albert Iluz), meanwhile, has one eye focused on his mayoral campaign, while Eliahu (Simon Abkarian) pines for the wife (Ronit Elkabetz, the café owner in “The Band’s Visit”) who left him. There’s the sister-in-law who was secretly in love with Maurice and, of course, the widow, barely visible for most of the film until she strolls in to kick an already explosive argument into the stratosphere.

In many ways, money — and the power it affords — is the root of the various family tensions. Whether it’s Haim’s consideration for his brothers or the surreptitious discussions about how the brothers should ante up to care for Maurice’s widow, every kind gesture is ridiculed, rebuffed and rejected.

“Shiva” (also called “The Seven Days”) is a challenging film because there are so many characters to track, and key bits of information are parceled out, often obliquely, in every conversation. It’s not quite a puzzle, but it’s a movie for adults willing to pay close attention.

It’s also a stark, claustrophobic picture — there’s no music, befitting a film that, with the exception of the cemetery scenes that frame the action, takes place entirely in a house of mourning — that stages most of its scenes with a fixed camera.

The effect is to avoid the anarchic, unpredictable emotion of, say, a John Cassavetes movie, while emphasizing the characters’ imprisonment (albeit one born of ritual observance). Knowing they are cooped up in Kiryat Yam, a few miles north of Haifa, we can never forget that they are sitting ducks for Saddam’s rockets.

“Shiva” blends French, Arabic and Hebrew dialogue into an aromatic, and sometimes pungent, mélange. Yet for all the sniping and enmity on display, the Ohayons never devolve into a hateful bunch whose company we can’t wait to escape.

That’s the sign of a good screenplay, of course, but it’s a testament above all to a clutch of exceptional actors and actresses capable of, and dedicated to, fearlessly exposing their characters’ insecurities and vulnerabilities.

“Shiva” screens on the opening night of the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival, 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 at CineArts, 2314 Monument Blvd., Pleasant Hill. $10-$11. Information: (510) 839-2900 ext. 256 or www.eastbayjewishfilm.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.