Israeli Film 'The Kind Words' Has a Good Story, but It's Not Enough

Despite an interesting plot, a mystery and a skillful cast, Shemi Zarhin’s sixth feature film leaves us wondering when this director will live up to his potential

From 'The Kind Words.'
From 'The Kind Words.' The story lacks an enriching context. Below: The father (Sasson Gabai) shares a moment with his daughter (Rotem Zissman-Cohen). Ronald Plant

'The Kind Words;' Written and directed by Shemi Zarhin; with Rotem' Zissman-Cohen, Roy Assaf, Assaf Ben-Shimon, Tsahi Halevi, Sasson Gabai, Levana Finkelstein, Florence Bloch, Maurice Benichou, Louise Portal

Of all the Israeli film directors who have a substantial body of work to their credit, Shemi Zarhin – whose sixth feature, “The Kind Words,” is now showing in Israel – stands out as being, above all, a storyteller. His movies, from “Leylasede,” “Dangerous Acts” and “Hakochavim Shel Shlomi” to “Aviva, My Love” and “Ha’olam Mats’hik,” all show that Zarhin’s foremost desire is to unfold a tale before us, to fill it with many characters, and sometimes to adorn it with 
subplots.

I like Zarhin’s wish to pull us into his narrative; clearly he wants to bring us the pleasure of a good story, or several of them. His considerable gift for storytelling grants him, in my eyes, the halo of an entertainer – and I don’t use this word in a pejorative sense – who recognizes the power of narrative and the joy of succumbing to it. There are hardly any examples of good directors who did not possess something of this quality. It is not only the story that underlies Zarhin’s art; in some of his films thus far, the act of writing itself gained prominence, as his characters discovered both the seductive power and the pitfalls of fabrication.

Zarhin’s interest in writing and invention has allowed him to wander in his films between reality and fantasy. Even when set in a realist context, his movies have somehow been pulled from reality toward consciousness itself, which not only 
responds to the world around it but finds ways to imagine it – and that, after all, is what a good story is all about. Zarhin knows more than how to tell a good tale; he can create characters with the right dosage of drama and psychology as well as precise dialogue.

Still, I have always found something missing from his movies. This holds true for “The Kind Words,” a work that somehow made that missing piece more palpable for me than ever before.

A story, no matter how good, is never all that a good movie needs. Zarhin’s work has always left me feeling that the narrative overwhelmed everything else it had to offer, and this impression has only grown stronger with “The Kind Words.” Despite its convoluted narrative structure, this is Zarhin’s most direct act of storytelling since “Hakochavim Shel Shlomi.” The movie has one central narrative and, more importantly, lacks the abundance of plot that made “Haolam Mats’hik” oppressive and clumsy, even bland. Nonetheless, I still see in “The Kind Words” the same limitations that left me reserved about Zarhin’s previous work. Watching it helped me realize that what bothered me about his earlier pictures was not narrative excess per se; the relatively simple, straightforward story of “The Kind Words” has only brought into relief the same problems found in his earlier films.

Family dynamics

Zarhin’s movies focus on family dynamics, and “The Kind Words” would have fit in well at the recent Cannes Film Festival competition, where many of the contenders 
focused on families and their predicaments. In Zarhin’s movie we have two brothers and a sister who, rather late in life, discover that their entire family identity is based on a lie. Each of the three is struggling with his or her own crisis. Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen) has separated from her husband Ricki (Tsahi Halevi) after suffering yet another miscarriage, and she feels that she needs to make a change in her life. The oldest brother, Netanel (Roy Assaf) has become religious for the sake of his wife, but seems ill at ease with his decision, although he staunchly defends the family he has built. Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon), a gay man, is trying to get over a romantic breakup (of the three siblings, Shai’s characterization is the flimsiest; the decision to make him gay seems arbitrary and expendable).

A death in the family leads to the return of their father (Sasson Gabai), with whom they have had no contact since he divorced their mother and married a singer, much younger than he. The father, who has just made a startling discovery, shares the news with his children. The secret he reveals, which their mother had kept from them, affects their relationship with him and, more broadly, their family identity. Dorona, whose frustration at her inability to become a mother manifests itself in an aggressive kind of energy, convinces her brothers that they must find out the source of the secret. Accompanied by Dorona’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, who insists on staying by her side, the four leave Jerusalem and embark on a journey that takes them first to Paris and then to Marseilles in search of the secret of their identity, which is rooted in their mother’s (Levana Finkelstein) native Algiers.

The story unfolds briskly and is interesting to follow, like any family melodrama – whether on film or in a sensational television show where family secrets come to light. As I’ve said, Zarhin is an able storyteller, and as always he relies on an excellent cast to flesh out his characters. As “The Kind Words” progresses, however, the absence of any enriching context for the story becomes more and more obvious.

A story, even a good one, needs to be set in an environment that deepens and widens it, and while “Hakochavim Shel Shlomi,” “Aviva, My Love” and “Hao’lam Mats’hik” had traces of such a context to add an additional layer to the story, “The Kind Words” does not; a story is all we get. Perhaps the reason is that this time, Zarhin has abandoned his hometown, Tiberias, where his previous two movies were set. As a result, he also disconnected himself from his ability to add to the narrative by observing a social, human and cultural environment that he knows well, and about which he has something to say beyond merely telling a tale that is set inside it.

“The Kind Words” is a movie about the bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives; it also explores such themes as infertility (the secret has something to do with that) and ethnic roots and identity.

But does it have anything substantial to say about any of these issues? Can it cast its gaze on something broader than the story it is telling? Not really, and as a result, “The Kind Words” feels like a catalog of themes raised briefly before our eyes.

Above all, “The Kind Words” explores the fragility of familial identity and relationships, but does little beyond showing that such fragility exists. What it has to say about this identity and these relationships, and how they are affected by the sudden revelation of the secret, has been said many times before. The story is interesting enough to follow – family mysteries always are–but in the end, “The Kind Words” has little more to offer us; it tells us nothing about the reality of life around the tale, and therefore seems like a narrative tapestry woven too loosely, of threads that are simply not thick enough.

I’ve mentioned the skillfulness of the cast, which is surely one of the movie’s virtues.

Kudos are especially due to Rotem Zissman-Cohen, who even as part of an ensemble carries the movie with her talent and presence; “The Kind Words” may have provided her with her first opportunity to display these in full. Ever since he first appeared on the scene of Israeli filmmaking, Zarhin has seemed to me an unresolved problem. On the one hand, his abilities are well proven; on the other hand, his movies – including this latest one – always seem to me shadowed by the films they might have been.

None yet has emerged as the kind of picture I expect of Zarhin, the kind of picture I am confident of his ability to make; one day, he might still surprise us with a film that exhausts his potential more fully than his work has thus far done.