By Hannah Lee
This year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia opened this past weekend with the 2012 box-office hit, “The World is Funny.” The gala weekend included a visit by the director/screenwriter, Shemi Zarhin, for a Q&A session with Sunday’s audience.
Nominated for a record-setting 15 times by the Israeli Film Academy for its Ophir Awards (and won for one), “The World is Funny” is set in Tiberias, the birthplace and muse of its director. It has a stellar cast, including Assi Levy, who won a Best Actress Ophir for her starring role in the 2006 film “Aviva, My Love” (Aviva Ahuvati), also written and directed by Zarhin. This film also is graced by the presence of an Israeli legend, Yeshayahu “Shaike” Levi, whose career with the Gashash HaHiver comedy trio spanned 40 years and won the Israel Prize in 2000. (My favorite Zarhin film remains the 2007 “Noodle,” in part because of the Israeli cheerful bravado spirit and the Chinese actors.)
“The World is Funny” is narrated by a young woman, Tsephi, who cleans houses (although she doesn’t need the income) while seeking out interesting stories for the writing workshop that she attends at the library. Her duties bring her into the lives of three estranged siblings: Yardena, whose daughter died while serving in the Israeli Army; Meron, whose wife died in a car crash and whose teen son has awakened from a 8-year resultant coma; and Golan, whose sweetheart is dying from cancer.
In a testament to the writer’s craft, the film is not depressing. The director livens up the mood with comic depictions of the student writer’s scenes, including a man who falls in love with the goat he’s raising for slaughter for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration, and an assassin who only reveals his true face during his deadly assignments.
“Is the world funny?”, asked Zarhin during the Q&A session. “Well, it’s not so funny; it’s actually sad. But, it’s up to us to make it funny, because we need it to be so”, he answered.
Israeli films succeed when they are “communicative,” when they touch people, and not subjects. Zarhin concludes, “Life is a story we’re telling to ourselves — especially in Israel — and it always has a happy ending, but in Israel, it’s always too late.”
After the opening weekend, which included “The World is Funny,” “By Summer’s End” and a collection of short films, Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with “Life in Stills,” “Out in the Dark,” “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, and “The Flat,” concluding with “Fill the Void,” on March 17th and a farewell reception at Zahav.