19 February, 2012

AJFF: "Intimate Grammar" (****1/2)

Roee Elsberg and Evelyn Kaplun star in "Intimate Grammar"
Many great films polarize their audience more than a presidential election. Take 2011, for instance. We had "The Tree of Life," "Melancholia" and "The Artist" seemingly split audiences down the middle between undying love and intense hatred. "Intimate Grammar" seems to be one of these films. While it is usually easier to tell why so many people fail to connect with a film that is loved by some; in this case, I just can't figure it out.

Nir Bergman's "Intimate Grammar," based on a beloved 1991 novel by David Grossman, is a beautiful film. While not an overly complicated film, each character boils over with complexities and the growing pains of a young nation are mirrored in the growing pains, both physical and emotional, of a young boy.

Giuseppe Tornatore's "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso," Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" and Lone Scherfig's "An Education" are three movies I love dearly. All were brought to mind after seeing "Intimate Grammar." Tornatore's film shares the same youthful romanticism and nostalgia. The way Bergman handles Aharon's melancholy dreams and slides back-and-forth effortlessly from reality to our protagonist's innermost thoughts reminded me so much of Gondry's lovely film. The sprawling cast who say more through their tones, looks and actions than with their words is reminiscent of "An Education." Each of the performances are so quietly abstract.

Roee Elsberg plays Aharon in "Intimate Grammar"
Aharon's mother, played by Orly Silbersatz, is easily the loudest character in the film. We see her relentlessly yell, scream and demean her 'loved ones.' Though her attitude is virtually intolerable, she is intensely loyal to her family. Whether it's in how she teaches Aharon to dance or tries to keep her husband away from their beautiful and mysterious neighbor, Silbersatz sews a silk lining into her gruff performance. Her struggle to show her family the love for them she truly does possess is understandable, seeing as many in her generation had experienced the Holocaust as children and lost their own parents.

There is such great character development throughout the entire film, I imagine the source novel is absolutely rich. Character work isn't all "Intimate Grammar" has going for it, though. The film features some equally impressive photography. The look and feel of the film is quintessentially Israeli. There aren't many close-up shots to be found, but such textured landscapes and personalities result in a lush mise-en-scène. A standout moment occurs when Aharon is pondering the beauty of the present progressive tense in the English language while tossing a tennis ball into the air. The shot, combined with what is being said, instantly became one of my all-time favorite film sequences.

Further evidence of it's polarizing nature, "Intimate Grammar" was nominated for a whopping eleven Ophir awards without taking home a single trophy. Had it have won the Ophir Award for Best Picture and gone on to be Israel's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission (instead of "The Human Resources Manager"), I think it would have played very well to the Academy and potentially have been nominated.

The ending certainly leaves us with some questions, although it is unfair to count that as a detractor. I was disappointed by all the 'it was so depressing's and 'it was too sad for me's I heard upon leaving the cinema, because I didn't get that impression at all. Even if I did, would that make it any less beautiful? Either way, "Intimate Grammar" is a fine, fine film.

4.5 stars out of 5.

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