‘The Matchmaker’ is charming, quirky Israeli film

Actors Adir Miller, Maya Dagan and Tuval Shafir in the film ‘The Matchmaker,’ directed by Avi Nesher.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“The Matchmaker (Once I Was)” is a quirky, magical Israeli film about an unusual matchmaker, told through the eyes of a teenage boy. This crowd-pleaser was the audience favorite at the New York Israeli Film Festival and was selected for the upcoming prestigious Toronto Film Festival. This wonderful, ambitious film is funny but also warm and dramatic.

Director Avi Nesher’s unexpected coming-of-age story is set in 1968, a pivotal time with the Six Day War still fresh and the world is caught up in “make love, not war.” The setting is a little-seen world of marginalized Shoah survivors living in Haifa.

The story is told in flashback, as middle-aged Arik Burstein (Eyal Shechter) remembers Yankale Bride, the odd matchmaker he knew almost 40 years earlier.

Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), a mysterious Shoah survivor with a scarred face, is a matchmaker specializing in hard-to-match clients. A teenaged prank gone wrong brings him to 16-year-old Arik’s (Tuval Shafir) apartment, where the teen is chagrined to discover that Yankele and his father were childhood friends back in Romania. Impressed with Arik’s ability at trickery, Yankele hires him as an assistant.

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The matchmaker’s office is in the shadiest part of town, a place near the water’s edge where black-marketeers and streetwalkers ply their trades. At first, Arik is nervous but finds the street is filled with a surreal, circus-like mix of outcast characters, a world with a touch of Fellini. Yankele’s office is behind a movie theater run by a family of dwarves, also Shoah survivors, a theater that shows only love stories. One of them, pretty, lively Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), is Yankele’s client.

Detective novel fan Arik quickly takes to his work investigating potential clients’ backgrounds. Yankele’s other assistant is lovely Clara (Maya Dagan), another survivor, who gives his clients charm lessons but also runs an illegal card game parlor. Arik quickly suspects matchmaking is not Yankele’s only source of income.

Yet Arik is distracted from his work by Tamara (Neta Porat), his best friend Beni’s (Tom Gal) cousin, a rebellious, rocker girl visiting from America.

Direction, photography and acting are all splendid. The characters are all vividly drawn. Miller has great brooding charisma as Yankele, and the air sparks with possibilities in scenes with Dagan as the emotionally fragile Clara. Papura lights up the screen as indomitable Sylvia, while young Shafir is strong as Arik.

This is a complex, multi-layered film. It charms with its close-knit world of immigrant survivors and amuses with the story of teen self-discovery but at its heart is wisdom about life. Arik’s world is filled with Shoah survivors yet everyone is tight-lipped about it, filling the air with mystery. Gradually, he gains insights on how profoundly those experiences changed the people around him.

Quirky yet wise, “The Matchmaker” is a sure charmer.

‘The Matchmaker’

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 14

where: Landmark Plaza Frontenac

Running time: 1:52

More info: In Hebrew with English subtitles