Intimate Grammar--Film Review

Poignant if sometimes overwrought coming-of-age tale starts sluggish, finishes strong.

A shining beacon of miserablist cinema, Intimate Grammar pivots on a Peter Pan-ish adolescent boy in 1965 Jerusalem caught between an adult world he detests and a childhood he refuses to grow out of — physically and mentally. Beginning the story as the leader among his clutch of friends, Aharon slides down to the level of pariah as the events of his life and the world at large start to weigh down on him. 

The market for Nir Bergman’s (Broken Wings) downbeat coming-of-age drama won’t extend much beyond the festival circuit, particularly niche festivals with a Jewish focus. Art house success could come in urban centers in Europe and North America if distributors emphasize David Grossman’s acclaimed novel, upon which the film is based.

In the early 1960s, the state of Israel is coming into its own as it simultaneously heads toward armed conflict with Syria and Egypt. It’s at this time that smart, sensitive adolescent Aharon (Roee Elsberg), 13 years old and small for his age, finds himself drowning in his own life. His vulgar, anti-intellectual father Moshe (Yehuda Almagor) is a pathetic parental role model and shrewish mother Hinda (Orly Silbersatz Banai, flirting with caricature) is putting the fear of god into him when she’s not browbeating him for being an undersized embarrassment to her. His neighbor, Miss Blum (Evelyn Kaplun), is the catalyst that causes his fragile family to implode, and he’s losing his first love to his more adult best friend Gidon (Eden Lutterberg). 

For almost half of its running time, “Intimate Grammar” is largely inert; plenty goes on but the story and characters don’t really go anywhere. Things pick up after Aharon’s bar mitzvah and he finds himself entangled in a youthful love triangle, and his vibrant inner life at odds with everyone and everything around him. Aharon’s imagination, up to this point, was only referred to as something he should get over by friends and family, but when Bergman indulges that part of the story (more easily done on the page to be sure) the themes of loneliness and resistance come into sharper relief. It’s his only escape from the constant humiliation Hinda subjects him to and the agony of his broken heart.

In many ways Intimate Grammar is also about collapse, as everything and everyone in the film eventually does so, like Miss Blum’s initially harmless misguided infatuation with Moshe that eventually turns tragic. Bergman has a sharp eye for the mundane, and creates an almost palpable environment anyone could understand wanting to escape from. He’s assisted by a strong performance by Elsberg as the isolated Aharon, who conveys an air of defeat and victory in his final desperate act.

Section: Tokyo International Film Festival, In Competition

Production: Libretto Films, Norma Pictures.
Producer: Assaf Amir. 
Director: Nir Bergman.
Screenwriter: Nir Bergman, based on the novel by David Grossman.
Director of Photography: Biniamin Nimrod Chirem.
Production Designer: Ido Dolev.
Music: Ondrej Soukup.
Costume designer: Natan Elkanovith.
Editor: Einat Glaser-Zarhin.
Cast: Roee Elsberg, Orly Silbersatz Banai, Yehuda Almagor, Evelyn Kaplun, Yael Sgerski, Eden Lutterberg, Rivka Gur.
No rating, 106 minutes