"Les Stances a Sophie" ("Sophie's Ways"), Moshe Mizrahi's second full-length feature film, will be screened tomorrow at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The movie, which was made in 1971, was never distributed in Israel and will conclude a festival of French New Wave films shown at the Cinematheque in recent months. Mizrahi himself prefers to identify his movie, made after the student riots and other events of May 1968, as "post-New Wave."
There is no one named Sophie in the movie: Like the title of the Christiane Rochefort novel on which it is based, the name of the film, says Mizrahi, is the name of an old French song sung by medical students; its supposedly comic words were a crude reference to the female anatomy. Mizrahi, 78, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, arrived in Israel in 1946 and moved to Paris in 1958, where he became friends with Rochefort. She was then living with Israeli author Amos Kenan, and became a celebrity after publication of her first book, "Warrior's Rest."
Rochefort was unhappy with Roger Vadim's 1962 film version of "Warrior's Rest," which starred Brigitte Bardot (although the movie, called "Love on a Pillow" in its U.S. release, was a hit). She asked Mizrahi to direct "Sophie's Ways," based on her third novel. By then he had already made his first picture (filmed in Israel but never released here), "Customer of the Off Season," based on a short story by his first wife, Rahel Fabian. (Mizrahi is now married to Israeli actress and filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam, and lives in Israel.) He had also directed a comic suspense series inspired by Alfred Hitchcock for French television.
"Sophie's Ways" tells the story of Celine (Bernadette Lafont), a young woman who marries the wealthy Philippe (Michel Duchaussoy). The plot follows the inevitable clash between the free, opinionated young woman, who plans to write a book about female sexuality with her friend Julia (Bulle Ogier), and the husband, who wants her to submit to his middle-class, patriarchal code of behavior.
"Like many directors who are just starting out, at the beginning of my career I was still influenced by the movies I had seen," Mizrahi recalls. "What saved me during my childhood in Alexandria, which was not an easy one, were two things: books and movies. I would see six or seven films a week, mainly American pictures from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as British and French films from before World War II. At some point I discovered there was such a thing as directors, and that they were the magicians who made the movies."
Mizrahi - who, by his own account, has not been a student at any school since the age of 14 - dreamed from a young age of going to Paris, and in 1950 he finally did so, as a representative of the Jewish Agency and the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. He was also sent to North Africa and had, as he describes it, a "fling" with the Mossad espionage agency, which wanted to send him to Egypt. Most of his time in Paris, while waiting for the Mossad to come up with a cover story for him, was spent at the Cinematheque, where he discovered that cinema was a serious art form.
"If you had asked me then what kind of movies I wanted to make, I would have answered, 'films noir and Westerns,' if I ever get to America," he says, laughing. "It was only after I had directed my first two movies that I discovered what kind of films I wanted to make, what kind of stories I wanted to tell. I discovered that the two subjects I was most interested in were women and adolescent boys. Every movie I have made or considered making begins from the connection between these two elements of society."
After he returned to Israel, Mizrahi made three movies - in retrospect his best-known works - in rapid succession: "I Love You Rosa" (1972), "The House on Chelouche Street" (1973) and "Daughters, Daughters" (1973).
The music in "Sophie's Ways" is performed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the legendary purveyors of the "free jazz" movement. Mizrahi met them through friends while the ensemble was in Paris. Earlier French pictures had used American jazz - for example, Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows," with its score by Miles Davis, or Vadim's "Dangerous Liaisons," which featured the music of Thelonious Monk. Mizrahi, however, used music more prominently: The musicians also appear in the movie.
Given the movie's theme, Mizrahi asked the ensemble to compose a blues tune based on the phrase from the book of Proverbs, "A woman of valor, who can find her?", performed in the movie by a black female jazz singer.
"I also gave them a few madrigals by Monteverdi that suggest a love of women, and asked them to adapt them into jazz," he recalls. "Since the ensemble was scheduled to return to the United States, they wrote the music for the film before I began shooting, and this became a habit with me: having the score composed before I start filming. Incidentally, a record with the soundtrack of the movie came out and became a collector's item."
People didn't come
The same French producer, Michel Cousin, worked on both "Customer of the Off Season" and "Sophie's Ways," trying to use each new production to pay off his debts from the last. Mizrahi says he did not know this when he agreed to work with Cousin, but as a result of the producer's financial problems, "Customer of the Off Season" was never screened in France, and when "Sophie's Ways" was about to be released, there was not even enough money to pay for mailing invitations to the premier to critics and journalists.
"The movie opened in Paris and was shown for three weeks, and the audience did not come, even though the reviews were good," says Mizrahi. "Directors are always looking for excuses why their movies failed, and I told myself that it was because it came out during a particularly cold winter. But there was another reason: Although France is known as a very liberal country that idolizes women, it is very conservative, and the whole feminist business in the movie still made most of French society uncomfortable. Don't forget that until 1968 women did not even wear pants on the streets of Paris.
"A copy of the movie found its way to the Atlanta film festival, one of the first festivals to be held in the United States, and there it had a better reception. After that, the film began to be shown on U.S. campuses, and I began to be known in America."
The failure of "Sophie's Ways" plunged Mizrahi into depression. He says he used to sit in a cafe across the street from the movie theater and watch people line up to buy tickets for the Claude Sautet film showing next door; there was no such queue for his own movie. When he traveled to Atlanta to show his film, he met a Canadian producer who told him he wanted to invest in movies made in Israel. Mizrahi told him the story of "I Love You Rosa," which is about the relationship between a young widow in 19th-century Jerusalem and her 11-year-old brother-in-law, who by Jewish law was supposed to marry her after her husband died. The producer liked it very much and suggested that it should be a major production in English, with Natalie Wood in the lead.
Mizrahi: "I sat in California, wrote the screenplay in English, went back to Paris and began to imagine the movie: I could see the places, the colors, the Old City, I could smell the smells, and I said to myself, 'What? In English? With Natalie Wood - much as I love "Splendor in the Grass"?' I decided it was impossible.
"And so my partnership with the producer dissolved, and the movie was produced by Menahem Golan. This movie changed my cinematic path because of its subject matter. While making it I found my language, because it is the story of my childhood. My entire family comes from Jerusalem. They went to Egypt during World War I, and then returned to Israel. The story is that of my great-grandmother."
Your best-known Israeli movies came out during the period in which a new local comic genre, known as the "burekas" movie, emerged. But your films seem like an antithesis to those movies, especially in their portrayal of Israelis of Middle Eastern or North African backgrounds. Was that a conscious decision?
Mizrahi: "I didn't think in such terms. Those were the movies I wanted to make at the time. I was not even aware that in my films Sephardim were finally not being presented as caricatures. I was so far from the burekas kind of filmmaking that it did not really touch me. My family was never the kind of Mizrahi family shown on the screen. I did not have that [baggage] to carry around. When I came to Israel and went to a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, I received preferential treatment. The movement was in some ways proud to have not only Ashkenazi Jews, but also someone whose name was Mizrahi. I began to make films outside Israel, where no one cared if I was Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and when I returned to Israel from France, I already had something to show for it."
The burekas comedies, he acknowledges, have risen to cult status over the years: "It's a disgrace. What did [Ephraim] Kishon know about Mizrahi Israelis? 'Sallah Shabati' is a disgusting movie in the way it represents the Mizrahi communities. I wanted to make personal pictures. To tell stories that move me - even though I am a political person, even though I believe that every movie is political.
"'Sophie's Ways' may be the most political movie I ever made, because of its polemical, didactic side. Because my movies were different in their treatment of relations between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Israelis, I was misunderstood all along both by the filmmaking establishment in Israel and by critics. For years I was not included in the narrative of Israeli cinema, and I really have no idea why that was true. I have no idea how you can talk about the history of Israeli movies without including my pictures. Perhaps because of my biography, which took me from Alexandria to Jerusalem to Paris, I seem like a foreigner, but the movies I make are not foreign."
"I Love You Rosa" and "The House on Chelouche Street," Mizrahi's two Israeli productions from 1972 and 1973, respectively, were both nominated for the best foreign-language Oscar, but it was his 1977 film, "La vie devant soi" ("Madame Rosa"), that won the prize. Today he thinks that the award worked against him in Israel.
"Because I won for a non-Israeli film, it made me 'not one of us,'" he explains. "Outside Israel the Oscar did help, but of course that fades over the years."
Mizrahi made "Madame Rosa" with Simone Signoret in the lead, as the elderly boarding-house matron and Holocaust survivor who cares for an Arab boy (the two also worked together on another successful movie, "I Sent a Letter to My Love," from 1980). At the time Mizrahi did not know that Emile Ajar, who wrote the novel on which the picture was based, was actually author Romain Gary. Initially, Claude Berry was supposed to direct "Madame Rosa." Berry, a friend of Mizrahi's, called him and suggested that they collaborate on the screenplay.
Mizrahi recalls that one day Berry "told me that a meeting had been scheduled with Ajar, who was known as a mysterious recluse who did not speak to anyone, and no one knew what he looked like. A semi-conspiratorial meeting was set up in some bar, and a man showed up for it. I later learned he was posing as Emile Ajar - that is, that Gary had sent someone to play Emile Ajar for him. That impostor spoke French with a heavy East European accent and said only, 'Don't ask me any questions, I did my part, I wrote the book.'
"When the screenplay was complete, I sent Ajar a copy through his agent and got back a handwritten letter from him praising the result. At the time Berry had pulled out of directing the movie, and the producers agreed to me doing it. When the movie was finished there was a private screening, to which Ajar was invited. I sat in a cafe nearby and saw Romain Gary walking around restlessly. At the time there was already a rumor in Paris that Gary and Ajar were relatives. That evening a messenger brought a letter signed by Gary, in which he wrote that Ajar was lucky to have found such a good director to adapt his book.
"When Romain Gary committed suicide and his will became public, including his confession that he was Emile Ajar and his apology for the deception, I said to myself: You idiot, how could you not notice that the two letters you got - one from Ajar, the other from Gary - were written in the same distinctive hand! By the way, when they showed his body being removed from his home on television, one of the men carrying the body was the man he had sent to the meeting as Emile Ajar. I think that Romain Gary, who was an important writer, could simply no longer tolerate the idea of being taken for granted."
Do you identify with him?
"No, but I can understand wanting to have people take notice of you, not to have them forget you."
'Hanks is a mensch'
In 1986 Mizrahi directed "Every Time We Say Goodbye," set in Israel during the British Mandate period and starring Tom Hanks.
"I love actors," he says. "Working with actors is practically my favorite part of filmmaking, and an actor is an actor. But beyond that, Tom Hanks really is a mensch, which made working with him very pleasant and satisfying."
What do you think of contemporary Israeli filmmaking? How do you feel about director Dover Kosashvili's recent claim that Israeli movies today are mediocre?
"I have a great deal of respect for contemporary Israeli filmmaking, which has proved what I have been saying for years: that the main problem with Israeli cinema is that not enough movies have been made. You need a critical mass of films made by new directors and veteran ones. You can argue about the subjects explored by Israeli movies and the reasons why some of them succeed, but there are interesting, relevant and innovative films being made here, and the success is authentic."
Twelve years passed between Mizrahi's next-to-last picture, "Women," and last year's "Weekend in the Galilee." Asked about the delay, he explains that he had wanted for years to make a movie about contemporary Israel, and that it took him a long time to figure out how to do it (the film is inspired by Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya"). Besides, he was tired of the local cinematic establishment.
"You have to know how to sell, you have to know how to seduce," he says. "I don't have the desire to seduce them [that is, the Israeli filmmaking establishment]. I don't have the desire to sell to them, and I don't like them and they can probably tell. I can't hide it. In France I've been pretty much forgotten, too, and I don't like them and they can tell. And anyway, if you've made a lot of movies already, and you don't make another one, it's no tragedy."