Enthralling and Disquieting




Tehilim, French-born Raphael Nadjari's fifth film, might be the best-unreleased celluloid treat of the year. However, thanks to local celebrations of cinema such as the 17th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival (NYJFF), several hundred cineastes here and there will be discovering this astonishing work by an overlooked master. Well, not totally overlooked: Nadjari was nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes last year.

The plot is simple. The Frankels, an Israeli family of four—Dad (Shmuel Vilojni), Mom (Limor Goldstein), teenage son Menachem (Michael Moshonov), and at times bratty younger brother David (Yonathan Alster)—are living a relatively commonplace middle-class existence in Jerusalem. The boys go to school; Dad goes to work; Mom makes challah on the Sabbath; and once a week, the men of the family study Tehilim (Psalms) with the lads' highly Orthodox grandfather.

What better way is there to understand life than through the words of the Bible?

Yes, what good Jewish boys! Well, almost. It seems Menachem's hormones are churning overtime. In the evenings, he leaves his apartment, pockets his yarmulke, and hangs out with his secular pals and girlfriend, singing songs on the sidewalks, drinking a tad, and committing other mildly rebellious activities.

Well, that seems rather normal, too. But one day, Dad gets into a minor car accident while driving his sons to school. Immediately, he sends Menachem out for help. When the teen returns with the police, Dad is missing; little David is alone in the backseat —farewell to a routine existence. The familial foundation has cracked. As the days go by, Mr. Frankel can't be found. The police wonder, did Mr. Frankel lose his memory? Is he lying unconscious in some field? Or did he just want to jump off his everyday treadmill of predictable household quibbles and paternal responsibilities?

A distraught Mrs. Frankel, besides having to stomach the agony of the unknown whereabouts of a loved one, is now suddenly confronted by daily monetary necessities. The bank accounts have been frozen until the exact state of her husband can be determined. Is he a missing person or a dead one? The government must decide. She's also lost control of her apartment, which her grandfather is filling up daily with strangers to commune with God for his son's return. "I need my home back," Mom finally cries out.

As for little feisty David, he's getting nightmares. But dispirited Menachem might just be taking The Disappearance worst of all. Brainwashed by his grandfather that prayer will return his father to the fold, the teen suddenly stops attending school, cold-shoulders his buddies, devastates his girlfriend, and then . . . (well, this isn't The New York Times, so I won't supply the ending).

What is both enthralling and disquieting about Tehilim is the sense of reality that surges off the screen. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were viewing a first-rate documentary. Apparently, according to one of the film's producers who spoke after an NYJFF screening, Nadjari, after fully scripting the film (which is in Hebrew with English subtitles), had the cast of professional actors and non-thespians adlib their scenes. The result is an extreme naturalness that renders Menachem's existential battle with religion -- or his religious battle with existentialism --momentous viewing. The cast is superb, the direction flawless, and the film unmistakably consequential.