New Israeli Film Release 'Magic Men' Conjures Up Holocaust Journey

Guy Nativ's film, about a Holocaust survivor who travels to Greece and searches for the boy who saved him from the Nazis, is too eager to please the audience.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Makram Khoury, Ariane Labed and Zohar Shtrauss in 'Magic Men.'Credit: Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Magic Men Directed by Guy Nattiv, Erez Tadmor; written by Guy Nattiv, Erez Tadmor, Sharon Maymon; with Makram Khoury, Zohar Shtrauss, Ariane Labed

The memory of the Holocaust, a journey in search of family origins, a religious conversion, Greece and its beautiful scenery, rap music, magic, a bit of Zorba, a Greek whore with a heart of gold (perhaps not as winning as Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday,” the 1960 hit directed by her husband, Jules Dassin) – all of these meet in “Magic Men” and try to blend into a work whose every scene will fill us with emotion. But the effort is too palpable, and the result falters.

“Magic Men” strives to win us over, using a range of formulas and presenting them in a visually and musically attractive package. Its agenda, however, is so obvious that at some point you start to resent it, and instead of responding to the movie, you pull away. There is only so much narrative and emotional manipulation a viewer can submit to in the course of 100 minutes, and at some point, not too long after the beginning, the amount of emotion with which the movie tries to flood us turns into kitsch.

“Magic Men” was directed by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor based on a screenplay they wrote with Sharon Maymon. These three filmmakers have a complicated history. In 2007 Nattiv and Tadmor co-directed “Strangers,” based on their own short film from 2003. Like “Magic Men,” “Strangers” also focused on a journey abroad – to Berlin, in that case; it centered on the chance encounter of an Israeli kibbutznik and a Palestinian woman living in Paris. (As I have written before, this is not my favorite plot formula for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Later they parted ways. Tadmor and Maymon collaborated as directors on the successful 2009 comedy “A Matter of Size,” while Nattiv went on to make the 2011 “Mabul (The Flood),” the best of the films I’ve mentioned so far, though not a success. Now the three of them have joined forces to make “Magic Men,” and perhaps their collaboration has amplified their tendency to rely on formulas and their eagerness to be liked – problems that only “Mabul” to some extent managed to avoid.

Avraham (Makram Khoury) is a Holocaust survivor of Greek origin, a widower and an amateur magician who finds himself forced to travel to Greece. Since he is not a young man, he has no choice but to take the trip together with his son, 
Yehuda (Zohar Shtrauss), a former rapper who chose to embrace a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish lifestyle but has not quite given up his music. Since his return to religion, he and his father have been estranged. Haredi Jews, born-again or otherwise, have become a common feature of Israeli films and television, for reasons too numerous to be recounted here. I will just say that their ubiquity can be a source of unease. “Magic Men” is one of two Israeli movies currently showing in which the son’s religious conversion catalyzes a break with the father and becomes a symbol of generational rebellion (the other is Yossi Madmoni’s “A Place In Heaven”). To me, such films make too-easy use of a significant, even critical social phenomenon affecting contemporary Israel.

“Magic Men,” for one, handles the issue in a blatantly superficial way, turning the clashes between the atheist father and his religious son into a series of melodramatic scenes with all the depth of a soap opera. Their eventual reconciliation – no spoiler here, since “Magic Men” is the kind of movie whose plot is obvious long before it unfolds – is presented in an equally shallow way. More complex ideas and emotions, which might have made the movie more ambivalent, are not what this particular film traffics in; if it did, we might have emerged from the theater without the sentimental gratification the movie is so 
determined to give us.

Avraham takes advantage of his visit to Greece to look for the boy who saved him from the Nazis 60 years earlier and taught him to do magic. It is through this search that we come to know the movie’s main female protagonist, Maria the contented prostitute (Ariane Labed), whose character the movie exploits in off-putting ways; her job usually consists of little more than providing an attractive female presence. The search for the boy steers the plot in directions that undermine its credibility and increasingly turn it into a chain of scenes that are conspicuously trying to please and move us at any cost.

There have been many feature films and documentaries about Holocaust survivors or their relatives who go off on journeys to find those who saved them during the war. Such a topic has to be handled with great care if you want to avoid lapsing into kitsch and sentimentality; it calls for judgment and self-discipline. But “Magic Men” falls into precisely this trap, or, more accurately, leaps into it with gusto, so that watching it often causes an uncomfortable feeling. Turning the memory of the Holocaust into a source of poignant melodramatic entertainment is a problem that contemporary filmmaking must confront, and “Magic Men” does so with a particularly acute lack of sophistication and self-awareness.

I imagine that many viewers will respond to the movie’s mechanical melodramatic and emotional formulas and enjoy its lovely landscapes and moments of Greek folklore (there is even some mention of the country’s currently dismal economic condition). There is one good reason to watch, and that is Makram Khoury’s lead performance. We’ve long known that Khoury is an excellent actor, but in “Magic Men” he gives an especially fine performance, restrained and precise – a veritable island of wisdom in a sea of problematic writing. Zohar Shtrauss is also believable as the son, but his performance is limited by the insufficiency of his character.