'The Kind Words': TIFF Review

The Kind Words - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
OK but somewhat soporific, this domestic story is elevated by a fine turn from Maurice Benichou.

Three siblings discover a shocking truth about their parentage after their mother dies in Israeli director Shemi Zarhin's comedy-drama.

Secrets bubble up from the deep past after a mother's death, leading to both tension and reconciliation for an Israeli family in writer-director Shemi Zarhin's thoughtful, if slightly drawn-out, sixth feature, The Kind Words. Displaying the literary, humanist sensibility that's made the director of The World Is Funny and Aviva, My Love also successful as a novelist, Zarhin invests time in exploring family dynamics with insight, making this accessible to anyone who's been through a bereavement or, indeed, just had siblings. However, the film's terms of reference are so insistently Israeli, from the running gag about Eurovision winner Izhar Cohen to the hand-wringing over Arab-Israeli relationships, this pleasant but not outstanding comedy-drama may struggle to find exposure outside its home territory and Jewish-themed film festivals.

At heart, the film is about a sister and two brothers, superficially very different from each other, who pull together to solve a mystery and, in classic-movie fashion, learn something about themselves in the process. Middle child Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen), effectively the story's protagonist in terms of screen time, is a spiky-tempered restaurateur whose marriage to slightly too-nice-to-be-credible Ricki (Tsahi Halevi) is on the rocks in the wake of their latest miscarriage. Her older brother, Netanel (Roy Assaf), has embraced Orthodoxy ever since his marriage, while youngest child, Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon) is openly bisexual. Homophobic Netanel can't accept that, although Shai's sexuality isn't a problem for either their Algerian-born mother (Levana Finkelstein) or their father (Sasson Gabai). As it happens, all three kids, especially Dorona, are too busy fuming about their dad having left their mother for a much younger woman to snipe at each other much.

All that fussing and feuding is put into perspective when the mother dies suddenly from cancer. Her three children pull together to mourn, and Zarhin underscores their growing bond by frequently framing them as a group as they sit, eat or do whatever in harmony. (In truth, he goes a little overboard with the device.) Then the father drops a truth bomb on them: He's just found out, because his new wife wants children, that he is totally infertile and never could have fathered the three of them. The revelation sets them off on a quest that takes them first to Paris to see their aunt and then on to Marseilles in search of the man who may or may not be their biological father.

It's to the script's credit that it doesn't tie up the story in cute little bows and instead leaves a number of questions unanswered by the end. All the same, some viewers used to more conventional narratives may find this very ambiguity frustrating or even a timid dodge away from controversy, considering suspect number one turns out to be played by Maurice Benichou, the soulful-eyed French-Algerian-Arab actor who's appeared in a number of Michael Haneke films. Although it's a relatively small role, he steals every scene and imbues the film with a dignity that elevates the proceedings. Without his contribution, the film might have played almost like an Israeli version of Lifetime trauma drama.

Production companies: Pie Films, Amerique Film, United King Films
Cast: Rotem Zissman-Cohen, Roy Assaf, Assaf Ben-Shimon, Tsahi Halevi, Sasson Gabai, Maurice Benichou, Louise Portal
Director-screenwriter: Shemi Zarhin
Producers: Talia Kleinhendler, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Martin Paul-Hus, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Ronald Plante
Editor: Einat Glaser-Zarhin
Production designers: Avi Avivi, Dorit Ben Shoshan
Composer: Daniel Scott
Sales: Beta Cinema

No rating, 118 minutes