Magic Men: Palm Springs Review

Magic Men - P - 2014
An estranged father and son travel from Israel to Greece to reclaim the past in this appealing sentimental journey.

The Israeli title follows a Holocaust survivor who returns to Greece to find the man who sheltered him during the World War II.

This year's Palm Springs Film Festival featured a large number of Israeli films, and Magic Men was one of the most popular of the lot. Imperfect but often affecting, the film might attract some interest from distributors, though it isn't quite strong enough to make a dent at the American box office.

The basic subject has been handled in other features as well as documentaries. The protagonist, Avraham (Makram J. Khouri), is a magician and Holocaust survivor who returns to Greece to try to find the man who sheltered him during the World War II. This kind of story has been examined in other countries. Directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor found that their own grandfathers had gone on a similar journey back to Poland. But the Greek setting adds a novel twist, and the film has an opportunity to glance at the recent financial crisis in Greece while the hero revisits his past.

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The best thing about the movie is that the writers (who include Sharon Maymon in addition to Nattiv and Tadmor) have created three distinctive, vivid characters. Avraham can be intolerant and disdainful of others, but he has an appealing independence and adventurous spirit. Although he's 78 years old, he wants to travel alone, but his family forces him to tolerate the company of his son, Yehuda (Zohar Strauss), a devout Hassidic musician. Avraham is contemptuous of his son's piety, and although this is never explained, we can't help imagining that his experiences during the Second World War shattered his faith once and for all. The orthodox Yehuda doesn't conform to stereotype. He's not quite as rigid as initial appearances suggest; his insecurities make him endearing. The pair receive help from a Greek prostitute, Maria (Ariane Labed), who is far more complex and engaging than the usual whore-with-a-heart-of-gold.

The journey of this trio to find the Greek magician who sheltered Avraham does not always unfold convincingly. Considering that more than 60 years have passed, these visitors make remarkably swift progress in locating the magician, and when they decide to transport him from the nursing home where he resides, credibility flies out the window. The conflict between father and son also moves too easily toward an inevitable reconciliation. Nevertheless, there are sweet moments along the way, as when Avraham gives his son a bath after both men have too much to drink. The performances help to bolster the movie. The directors hired a Palestinian actor (who has appeared in such films as The Syrian Bride and Munich) to play Avraham, and Khoury delivers a rich performance. Strauss brings surprising nuances to his portrayal, and Labed enlivens every one of her scenes.

Cinematographer Benji Cohen brings a fine eye to the Greek locations. The musical score is varied and vibrant. The conclusion threatens to sink into formula, but you'll remember the sharply drawn characters from this cross-cultural odyssey.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Cast: Makram J. Khoury, Zohar Strauss, Ariane Labed, Marina Tsigonaki, Vangelis Mourikis
Directors: Guy Nattiv, Erez Tadmor
Screenwriters: Guy Nattiv, Erez Tadmor, Sharon Maymon
Producers: Shemi Shoenfeld, Amitan Manelzon
Director of photography: Benji Cohen
Music: Ophir Leibovitch
Costume designer: Shiran Cohen
Editor: Einat Glaser Zarhin
No rating, 100 minutes