Relishing intimate moments

Movie Review

July 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

What a film the young Israeli writer-director Dover Kosashvili could have made of Goodbye, Columbus.

He may not be the stylist Philip Roth is, but he has a similar talent for capturing the exact weight of erotic gestures and of anti-erotic family pressures. In his feature debut, Late Marriage, Kosashvili drops an amorous intellectual named Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi) into a middle-class Soviet Georgian immigrant circle as materialistic and tightly knit as Roth's nouveau riche New Jerseyites. Like Roth, Kosashvili knows his characters so well, and conveys his understanding so fully, that he never merely snickers at the gaudiness of their apartments or the conventionality of their aspirations -- he appreciates what it took for them to achieve stability, and he respects their fervent appetites. Unfortunately for the graduate student Zaza, their grasp on life becomes a death grip on his love life.

Zaza, 31, hasn't married yet because he's having an intense affair with a 34-year-old Moroccan divorcee, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), who has a 6-year-old daughter, Madonna (Sapir Kugman). The phrase "older and divorced single mother" contains three taboos for Zaza's father, Yasha (Moni Moshonov) and his mother, Lili (Lili Kosashvili, the director's real-life mother). Even when they try to match Zaza with a beautiful 17-year-old Georgian girl who is actually a budding voluptuary, he can't take his mind off Judith. Yet when he's with Judith, he's unable to pretend that he can break away from his parents. In Kosashvili's world, husbands rule not like pashas, but like tribal patriarchs who will be disciplined by their own brothers and brothers-in-law if they stray from the proper route or fail to respect their wives. (It's hard to tell which parent holds more sway over a son.)

These Georgian-Israelis uphold their family values both with atavistic passion and with full consciousness. Yasha insists that he trusts the head more than the heart -- that's why he and Lili want their son to have an arranged marriage. Elements of magic, though, enter into the mix. Before the one matchmaking scene we get to witness -- which in its level of protocol is more like The Makioka Sisters than Fiddler on the Roof -- Lili kicks a common charm made of a baby's foreskin under the bed of her prospective daughter-in-law. In a brilliant matching scene, Judith filches Zaza's semen-streaked underpants and burns them as an offering to God so Zaza will want only her.

In his pursuit of a Ph.D. in philosophy, Zaza wrestles with the meaning and existence of God; outside the library, he wants a touch of supernatural power himself. As even that precocious 17-year-old notes, for his mother to believe in true love "would be a miracle."

With his supposed superb match (the alluring Aya Steinovitz Laor), an aspiring designer of vamp's clothing and a hardhead who declares she wants her husband to be "rich," Zaza is amused, intrigued and tentative, revealing only bits and pieces of his contemplative personality or his appreciation for absurdity. With Judith, Zaza becomes a full-fledged sexual comedian. Their long sex scene has the enveloping warmth of arousal mixed with playfulness and communication. Judith is no intellectual, but her intelligent, intuitive bluntness almost keeps Zaza honest. It's become a cliche to praise intimate scenes for what a writer or director leaves unsaid; I like this scene in Late Marriage for what the characters do say. Judith prods Zaza into musing that there is no witchcraft, only gravity -- and the rest of the movie shows how sorrowful a force it can be. Zaza may never escape the pull of his nuclear family.

Late Marriage is erotically audacious and equally daring in the ways it dramatizes the cozy terrors of clansmanship. After Yasha tracks Judith down, he and the extended family confront her and Zaza in her apartment and treat her like a whore in front of her young Madonna. (That's a rough summary of what happens; Zaza knows this conflict is coming -- you try to read his mind as it happens -- and not all the family members act en masse.)

Until the final shot, the movie keeps you wondering how it will turn out.

And, not to be outdone by the human actors, a compact, frisky canine named Mouki delivers the best supporting four-legged performance since Mike the Dog in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Late Marriage

Starring Lior Loui Ashkenazi, Ronit Elkabetz, Moni Moshonov and Lili Kosashvili

Directed by Dover Kosashvili

Unrated

Released by Magnolia

Time 105 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * 1/2

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