Two compelling performances anchor the Israeli drama Wedding Doll, recipient of a number of high-profile awards on local turf. In his first narrative feature, documentarian Nitzan Gilady demonstrates an assured grasp of visual storytelling, using a stunningly rugged desert setting that’s as much a character as the film’s perpetually sunny, intellectually challenged 24-year-old and her world-weary mother. Though the bleak ending feels forced, this modestly scaled drama deftly avoids the cloying approach that such material often invites.
As Hagit, who lives with her mother in Mitzpe Ramon, a remote town in the Negev Desert, the captivating young actress Moran Rosenblatt is a revelation, conveying both what’s blinkered and what’s discerning in the character’s openheartedness. Favoring girlish outfits in magenta and purple (excellent work by costume designer Keren Eyal Melamed), Hagit is something of an outsider artist, obsessively crafting tiny dolls bedecked in wedding gowns. Her chief material is toilet paper, the sole wares of the factory where she’s worked for years in a low-paying job. News that the plant’s owner (Aryeh Cherner) is closing the business sends Hagit’s already stressed mother, Sara (Assi Levy), on a mission to find her another job.
Sensitively told, with a powerful sense of place.
In her good-natured way, Hagit has been chafing against Sara’s protectiveness, sneaking out of their apartment to get to work on her own, a way of charting her own destiny for the day. But the divorced mom is driven by a complicated mix of love and guilt over events in Hagit’s childhood. Gilady’s screenplay makes clear how past history reverberates in the present day, but he never overstates or overexplains the characters’ backstory. The way a neighbor half Hagit’s age cruelly taunts her speaks volumes.
Where Hagit sees beauty and romance, Sara sees a far harsher reality. But her view isn’t as black-and-white as that of her married son (Tomer Kapon), who insists that Hagit belongs in an institution or group home. Sara’s self-sacrifice has its limits, though, and she does a bit of sneaking around of her own, to tryst with her frustrated boyfriend (Oded Leopold).
With just an inflection or well-aimed silence, Levy’s finely nuanced performance captures a life story. At the high-end ecotourist hotel where she’s a housekeeper, the elegant symmetry of cinematographer Roey Roth’s widescreen compositions emphasizes her battered spirit and her sense of being trapped.
Hagit’s secret meetings with her boss’s son, Omri (well played by Roy Assaf), are somewhat more innocent than her mother’s affair, but Gilady frames them as potentially loaded with danger, whether the couple are smooching in the back room at work or sitting on the lip of the gaping Ramon Crater. The young man clearly is taken by her, but it’s just as apparent that he’s unwilling to make his feelings public. At the same time, Hagit views their stolen kisses as a prelude to marriage.
Rosenblatt navigates a fine line in her portrayal, never pandering to audience sympathy or condescending to Hagit’s fascination with all things bridal. The effectiveness of the portrayal goes beyond the character’s radiant smile, creative instincts and ferocious resilience. It’s in such ineffable details as the way she takes a drag from Omri’s cigarette, every bit the infatuated teenager feigning sophistication, or despairs at being forced to meet a parentally approved suitor — played by Aviv Elkabeth, in a sequence that unfolds with the piercing poignancy of a short story.
With glimpses at the off-putting machismo of Omri’s friends and his desire to escape to wider horizons, Gilady zeroes in, to increasingly diminished and clichéd effect, on the small-mindedness of the provincial locale. He wraps the story in a way that feels rushed and unsatisfying, offering both too much and too little. It’s a letdown after such quietly observant storytelling, but this is nonetheless a promising narrative debut.
Distributors: Strand Releasing, Outsider Pictures
Production company: Gilady Nitzan Films
Cast: Moran Rosenblatt, Assi Levy, Roy Assaf, Aryeh Cherner, Oded Leopold, Tomer Kapon, Avi Ger, Itzik Giuli, Udi Persi, Aviv Elkabeth
Director-screenwriter-producer: Nitzan Gilady
Director of photography: Roey Roth
Production designer: Dina Kornveits
Costume designer: Keren Eyal Melamed
Editors: Daniel Avitzur, Tali Goldring
Composer: Lior Rosner
Not rated, 82 minutes