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Death in the Family 

In the past year, Canal Place has exhibited two haunting films, Divine Intervention and Rana's Wedding, that explore the ongoing nightmare in the Middle East from the perspective of everyday, largely non-political Palestinians. The humanity of these two pictures has left me hungering for something that would look at contemporary life for commonplace Israelis, a prosperous, hardworking people yearning for peace but plagued by violence. And thus I responded eagerly to a screening for writer-director Nir Bergman's Broken Wings, a film I presumed would do precisely that. In a way, of course, it does. The picture is set in the present and concerns a Haifa family in crisis. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and is disappointing for other reasons as well.

Broken Wings is the story of the Ulman family of five now struggling both emotionally and economically about nine months after the sudden death of their husband and father. The mother, Dafna (Orly Silbersatz Banai), is a hospital midwife. When her husband was alive, she was presumably better able to manage a punishing work schedule that regularly requires double and graveyard shifts. But in the absence of a second (and effectively revealed, unusually nurturing) parent, Dafna has been forced to place heavy burdens on her 17-year-old daughter Maya (May Maron).

In part, Maya is a typical teen, eager for her mother's unreserved embrace and all at once determined to spread her wings toward the independence of adulthood. Maya has a boyfriend in her high school class, but she's more interested in 24-year-old Yoram (Danny Niv) with whom she's formed a rock band. If the world of relationships were reduced to analogies about the Rolling Stones, she's Mick Jagger to Yoram's Keith Richards. Given the film's title and central metaphor, filmmaker Bergman is tres heavy-handed in having Maya's band members perform in costumes sprouting meshes of wings from their shoulders. At least Bergman includes this image only early and not often.

Maya has two siblings under age 10, a brother Ido (Daniel Magon) and a kindergartener sister Bahr (Eliana Magon). Because Dafna has to work such unpredictable hours and as much because she is battling an almost crippling depression, her older daughter is pressed into a parenting role Maya resents. Here Bergman's script is both sharply observed and wise. Maya wants to play music and stumble her way toward sexual experience. She wants to hang with her own friends. At the same time, she's a good person who loves her brother and sister. She loves her mother, too, but she's furious that Mom expects her to sacrifice her own life. To make matters worse, Maya's older brother, Yair (Nitai Gaviratz), is failing to help out at all. A one-time all-star basketball player, Yair has dropped out of high school and sunk into a world of bizarre ennui. Every day he dons a mouse costume and wanders through Haifa's subways handing out flyers that ponder the meaninglessness of existence, a teenage Mickey-Sartre-Camus.

Maya and Yair have always been close, but now he's contemplating his navel while his younger brother and sister are collapsing from grief and neglect. Bahr wets the bed and refuses to go to school. Ido refuses to speak to his mother, torments his sister and takes increasingly dangerous self-destructive risks by deliberately jumping onto hard surfaces from ever greater heights. Yair isn't paying attention. Dafna knows her kids are in trouble, but she's too overwhelmed to do anything about it. And Maya is just a kid herself, the least damaged member of her family, but still someone understandably lacking the maturity and experience to hold everyone else together.

Since Bergman's script tantalizes us with hints about how Dad died, we keep expecting the big revelation that he was the victim of a suicide bomber or other terrorist attack. But that's not where the film is headed at all. And save for another twist on the film's central metaphor, I can't say that I have unraveled the reasons for the filmmaker's choice. It seems arbitrary rather than inevitable, and, once revealed, the way in which the father dies never entirely accounts for the behaviors of those he left behind. Reasonably enough, Broken Wings makes the point that crises can shatter a community of loved ones but can also draw them together, and by drawing them together can perhaps save them as a unit. The question is, can the fragile Ulman family survive another life-and-death trauma. I am sure Bergman intends the answer to that question to be an endorsement of the strength of love and an emblem of hope in a troubled world. Regrettably, I found little either convincing, enlightening or moving in the progression of horrors the Ulmans are required to face. I hasten to praise the radiant screen command of young Miss Maron, but I didn't find enough substance in the film surrounding her to suggest that you need to see it.

click to enlarge Yair (Nitai Gvirtz) tries to connect with Iris (Dana Ivgy) in Nir Bergman's Broken Wings.
  • Yair (Nitai Gvirtz) tries to connect with Iris (Dana Ivgy) in Nir Bergman's Broken Wings.
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