Domestic Drama in Israel: The Personal Avoids the Political

Nir Bergman’s Broken Wings deals with a dysfunctional Israeli family. The Ulmans have become completely demoralized after the recent and sudden death of the paterfamilias , whom we only see fleetingly in a home movie.

The film opens with a music contest at which 17-year-old Maya Ulman (Maya Maron) sings a mournful tribute to her late father. The same affecting song is played over the end credits. Maya’s mother, 43-year-old Dafna (Orly Silbersatz Banai), calls her daughter to come home to look after her 6-year-old sister, Bahr (Eliana Magon), and her dangerously self-destructive 11-year-old brother, Ido (Daniel Magon). Maya angrily slams down her cell phone as she leaves the contest to return home so that her mother can work the hospital night shift as a midwife. To round out this mélange of malaise set in Haifa, Maya’s 16-year-old brother, Yair (Nitai Gaviratz), has dropped out of school and taken a menial job-a tedious nihilist, he believes in nothing at all.

In short, the Ulmans certainly don’t need Hamas to agitate them. Indeed, the violence in the Middle East that preoccupies the American media is never mentioned or acknowledged by any of the characters. Nor are there any television images in the background to provide an alibi in the Zeitgeist for the family’s angst. The fact that Dafna has to work nights to make ends meet suggests that this family’s economic hardships may have predated the catastrophic loss of the family wage-earner. Unfortunately, there’s very little back story to enlighten us one way or another. All we know for sure is that the father died grotesquely from a bee sting during a beach excursion; Maya had delayed the family so she could trek into the bushes to pee, and her guilt over the imagined culpability in her father’s death eventually drives her to flee her father’s home and try to make a singing career for herself in Tel Aviv.

This might all sound a bit familiar. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t plan to see Broken Wings back to back with Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself , as I did one tearful day. Taken together, the cumulative guilt over the death of a parent in these two films might be injurious to your mental health. Even so, I was impressed by both movies because of the behavioral precision of their characterizations, and the grown-up feelings expressed about family ties-a feeling strong enough to survive angry outbursts of hostility.

When the troubled Ido takes one dangerous jump too many and winds up in a coma with a fractured skull, the contentious Ulman family comes together at long last, as they take turns to lovingly scold Ido toward recovery, and as Dafna and Maya are finally reconciled.

Perhaps it’s because Broken Wings is completely divorced from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I found it so effective as domestic drama. It reminds us, after all, that throughout the world, all family feeling is local.

Demented Depp

David Koepp’s Secret Window , based on the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” by Stephen King, has been dismissed by most reviewers without, in my view, adequately describing what the film’s about-perhaps for fear of giving the gruesome plot surprises away. Indeed, one would think from most of the reviews that Johnny Depp’s moody Mort Rainey was suffering from nothing more severe than writer’s block and despondency over his recent divorce from his wife, Amy Rainey (Maria Bello).

As the story proceeds, we learn that Mort has retired to a lonely mountain cabin and spends most of his time napping on the couch in his mangy bathrobe. His only companions are his dog and a solicitous cleaning woman who functions mainly to annoy him. As if he doesn’t have enough problems, Mort is one day confronted by a mysteriously angry stranger named Shooter who claims that Mort plagiarized one of his short stories and passed it off as his own. Mort patiently establishes that Shooter wrote his story a full two years after Mort’s story had appeared in the monthly Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine . Shooter demands to see a copy of the magazine-a request that, as Mort explains, will take a few days to fulfill. Later that night, he discovers that his dog has been stabbed to death with a screwdriver.

Mort decides quite plausibly that it’s time he notified the local sheriff, Dave Newsome (Len Cariou), of Shooter’s violent behavior. But the sheriff turns out to be another eccentric character, more preoccupied with his own needlepoint than with Mort’s complaint. But after Mort’s dream house (which he had once shared with his wife) is burned to the ground, and when he discovers at a divorce hearing that his wife’s new boyfriend, Ted Minor (Timothy Hutton), comes from a town in Tennessee called Shooter, Mort begins to suspect that a conspiracy is afoot between his wife’s lover and Shooter, who claims to be from Mississippi. In desperation, he calls on Ken Karsch (Charles S. Dutton), his lawyer and a former detective besides, to investigate Shooter and perhaps put a scare into him.

But why go on? Mr. Koepp keeps strewing one red herring after another into our path to make us think that Mort-who’s our only source of information-is in some danger from Shooter. If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to do so in the future and you don’t like to have nasty critics spoiling the “fun,” then read no further, because I draw the line at synopsizing schizophrenic fantasies as if they were legitimate narratives.

The point is that Shooter is merely a figment of Mort’s sociopathic imagination, and ultimately the means by which Mort can revenge himself on his wife, her lover and, incidentally, two very innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way of his murderous rage. Yet, strangely, the crime for which I can never forgive Mort is the brutal killing of his own dog so that he can raise a general alarm over the ugly menace of a nonexistent Shooter. Mr. Depp demonstrates once again that he never disappoints as an actor, even in something as fraudulent as Secret Window , clearly a post-Oscar-nomination indulgence. Nor can one fault Mr. Turturro, Ms. Bello, Mr. Hutton, Mr. Dutton or Mr. Cariou for giving their all and then some to this odd enterprise.

Suicidal Tendencies

Lone Scherfig’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself , from a screenplay by Ms. Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, immediately illustrates its title by showing us someone whom we assume to be Wilbur in the process of killing himself by clumsily turning on the gas. As the credits roll over this botched suicide, the mood becomes strangely lyrical thanks to Joachim Holbek’s scoring-a hauntingly hopeful cello-driven melody.

This is the kind of music one expects near the end of a movie, not at the very beginning. Hence, we are enlisted emotionally in the spectacle before we’re given details of plot, locale or character. Though the morbidity of the movie’s title and initial action is maintained to the last scene in a cemetery, Ms. Scherfig and Mr. Jenson have fashioned one of the most exquisitely life-affirming and love-affirming cinematic experiences of the year.

Of course, Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is rescued in time by his loving older brother, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), who has inherited a large, musty secondhand book shop with living quarters attached. This becomes one of the film’s three major venues, along with a hospital and a cemetery. After the first four failed suicide attempts, Wilbur is thrust against his will into a hospital-sponsored suicide support group, supervised alternately by a friendly woman doctor named Sophie (Susan Vidler) and a gruff, no-nonsense male doctor named Horst (Mads Mikkelson). The movie doesn’t milk the support group for easy laughs, as is too often the custom with this comic crutch. Instead, this form of the “talking cure” is given short shrift by Wilbur, who refuses to speculate about his motives for wanting to end his life.

By this time, we’re aware that we’re dealing with a small subsection of Scottish eccentrics in Glasgow, all gathered around piles and piles of ill-assorted old books. There are many overhead shots of the people in the shop, as if they were being viewed from a safely disengaged distance. And why not? Ms. Scherfig is a Danish director, once associated with the Dogma 95 movement championed by Lars Von Trier. Her best-known film is Italian for Beginners , a sweet-natured valentine that nurtured the widespread Danish perception that the Danes are the “Italians of the North,” with all that this implies about their Scandinavian neighbors.

The Wilbur-and-Harbour family unit is crucially augmented by single mom Alice (Shirley Henderson) and her daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay). Alice comes in at first to sell some books she has inherited from her hospital patients, but finds herself immediately attracted to the diffident Harbour. But the romance takes a sudden leap when she arrives at the shop one day just in time to rescue Wilbur from another suicide attempt. This leads to her being fired from her nurse’s job at the hospital and finding solace in Harbour’s arms, after which the two are married. And when Alice finds herself drawn to Wilbur (and he to her), the stage is set for a turgid Desire Under the Elms –like melodrama. Just at this point, however, Harbour is diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer, which leads to everybody functioning with a heroic degree of dignity. Wilbur is at last cured of his guilt-ridden suicidal impulses: Since the age of 5, he’s felt that, he alone, was responsible for the death of their mother (Harbour relates this pathetic back story to Alice with a warmly understanding tone). The last thing that Harbour tells Wilbur before going off to the hospital to die is that he wants Wilbur to take care of Alice after he’s dead. There are no suspicions or last-minute confessions involved-the characters are always dancing too close to death as they huddle together for whatever warmth life can give them.

I have seen very few films in which people touch and hold each other with such a desperate anxiety. At the moment that Harbour dies, Ms. Scherfig cuts to Mary, the child, turning over in her sleep, as if her stepfather has made contact with her soul.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is a film with no obligatory scenes and no wasted emotion. The Scottish accents are not always intelligible, but the dramatic trajectories of the characters are always written on their faces. There is one unforgettable image of Wilbur, Mary and Alice each in a fetal position facing in the same direction. Slowly, Alice extends her arm backward over her sleeping daughter, and Wilbur grasps her hand as if to solemnize their indissoluble union. Adrian Rawlins and Jamie Sives as Harbour and Wilbur are new to me, but both are fraternally in sync. Shirley Henderson, however, adds to her laurels as Alice, and Lisa McKinlay confirms once again that this is the golden age for child actors.