By Deborah Young
Already a winner of screenplay and audience awards in Israel before it bowed in Venice and Toronto, Longing (Ga’agua) takes an oblique look at the meaning of fatherhood in the story of a middle-aged man who belatedly learns he had a son. The fact that the boy is dead only whets his now unfulfillable desire to be a parent. Writer-director Savi Gabizon (Nina’s Tragedies) daringly explores this premise as an ironic, gently melancholic black comedy, whose twists and turns build to a sobering climax. It’s a charming niche film for adults that pleases while it makes some wise points.
Shai Avivi plays Ariel, a white-bearded bachelor who is spartanly described as a factory owner. One day he meets his old college girlfriend Ronit (Asi Levi of Wedding Doll) in a trendy restaurant. They haven’t seen each other in 20 years. Spurning Ariel’s small talk, she drops the bomb: When they split up, she was pregnant.
But then the second explosion: Their son Adam recently drove his car off a bridge and was killed. “You need to know,” she blurts out before running out of the restaurant.
Stunned and trying to digest this info, Ariel drives to Acre, where Ronit and her husband Eli live, to participate in the stone setting ceremony for Adam. To his surprise, no one turns up, not even Ronit, who is in the hospital. But he meets another mourner, a father whose teenage daughter committed suicide, who will become an important character later on.
Staying in town for a few days, Ariel first learns all the good things about Adam. He was a passionate musician who played Bach on the piano, for instance; he had a band and he liked to write poetry. This is what Ariel chooses to fasten on, rather than the boy’s much larger shadow side. Adam had a game leg and kept to himself. He got kicked out of high school for defacing a building with obscene graffiti — an adolescent love poem to his hot French teacher Yael (Neta Riskin) about her giant naked body straddling the schoolyard while she copulates with a steeple. The high school principal is mortified, but Ariel is enchanted at his son’s passion.
Next, he learns Adam was dealing drugs, and stalking Yael, who had to call the cops on him, all while living at the home of his 15-year-old girlfriend Lilia, whose father is an ex-con. After each revelation, instead of coming down to earth, Ariel becomes more unreasonably protective, rationalizing Adam’s misbehavior as someone else’s fault, while taking responsibility for none of it. Because even if Ronit left him without telling him she was pregnant, she knew at the time that he was a selfish egoist who didn’t want to have kids. Nor did he ever try to look her up in the intervening years.
The film’s viewpoint is frank and a little eccentric, and each scene is designed to lead to a narrative surprise. When Ariel suddenly appears in Yael’s French class one day, he unhesitatingly answers the students’ questions, and his own backstory of childhood abuse comes out. It’s refreshing that the scene is not played as cliched catharsis; it’s simply touching.
By the time the third act rolls around, Ariel is out on an emotional limb. When he and the other bereaved father in the cemetery decide to marry their dead children “according to a Taoist tradition,” it seems like a good idea. A spray of final twists includes a meeting with Lilia’s aggressive father and a sobering last-minute lesson about what it means to be a good dad.
It’s liberating to watch how Avivi, as the humorously invasive Ariel, boldly casts off his self-imposed strait-jacket and reaches a higher level of self-knowledge in the subdued final shots. Levi is warm and convincing as Ronit, an emotional roller coaster who unwittingly opens a Pandora’s box by bringing Ariel into her grieving. Yoram Hazan’s delicate piano score underlines the film’s mood of melancholy and realism.
Production companies: United Channels Movies (UCM)
Cast: Shai Avivi, Asi Levi, Neta Riskin, Yoram Tolledano, Shimon Mimrah
Director-screenwriter: Savi Gabizon
Producers: Chilik Michaeli, Avraham Pirchi, Tami Leon, Savi Gabizon, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Asaf Sudry
Editor: Tali Halter Shenkar
Music: Yoram Hazan
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
World sales: Films Boutique