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[whitespace] Ronit Elkabetz and Lior Ashkenazi
Simmer and Smoke: Ronit Elkabetz and Lior Ashkenazi play dueling lovers in 'Late Marriage.'

Nuclear Nuptials

In dry, wrenching 'Late Marriage,' two generations war on the field of matrimony

By Richard von Busack

JUST WHEN we've heard our fill of stories about the beauty of traditional culture vs. our lonely lives in the West that's when a bright, sour film like Late Marriage comes along. It suggests that traditional families were the very thing our grandparents came to America to get away from.

Dover Kosashvili's film is dead unpredictable, which keeps it out of easy-to-define categories. What seems like a comedy in Russia may look like a tragedy to us. Late Marriage concerns Russians--or rather, Georgians--in Tel Aviv. An immigrant family is arranging a marriage according to all of the customs of the old school. It's a familywide effort spearheaded by Lily (the director's mom, Lili Kosashvili), a smothering mountain of a woman, and her cowed husband, Yasha (Moni Moshonov).

At first glance, it is easy to mistake their son, Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi), for a snob. Ashkenazi sports the burgeoning smirk of a Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. His disdain is inflamed by his parents, who are upset by the "scandal" of their 31-year-old son being still unmarried at his advanced age. Zaza, being a dry humorist and a philosophy major, cooperates with their attempts to set him up. "Good luck, suckers," he murmurs.

His first appointment is a forced date with a student fashion designer who's clearly not afraid of men. At this point, we're lulled into thinking that the film's going to be an Israeli Taming of the Shrew, with witty parrying between the sexes.

But the courtship's not here to illustrate the folly of arranged marriages (this fine girl needs no help finding the right boy). The real reason for Zaza's disinterest in marriage is soon revealed. He's having a secret affair with a Moroccan divorcée named Judith (Ronit Elkabetz, a woman as impassive and tough as Cher in her early years as an actress).

Judith has a lonely young daughter named Madonna, who loves Zaza already. She also has a souvenir of her marriage: one of those broadswords you can buy at fancy cutlery stores. Judith keeps it around in bitter remembrance of her rabid ex-husband. (Showing us that he has no fear of the man's return, Zaza uses the blade to chop open a coconut.)

Clearly, the film was imported here on the strength of a bedroom scene between Zaza and Judith in which nothing is hidden. As in Y Tu Mamá También, this sex scene improves the chances of success for this first-rate film.

I've been reading John Updike's novels about Rabbit Angstrom lately. I admire the way Updike charts the physical mechanics of sex--what it feels and tastes like, how sweet and grotesque the genitals are. But while writing avidly, Updike is precise about how and when emotional gears don't mesh.

Kosashvili displays a similar genius for using sex as a diagnostic test. The long scene tells us much about the tensions in Zaza and Judith's relationship. Judith is sick of Zaza's treating her like a bad secret. The couple teeters on the edge of hostility outside of bed, the one place where they get along best. Deliberately hiding what the relationship means to Zaza, Kosashvili leads us to the scene of confrontation between Zaza and the full-court press of his family. The conflict is like a cross between an intervention and a home invasion.

Late Marriage is also about submission to family claims, the God of the fathers, and the father as God. There's a stunning moment akin to James Dean's drunk scene in Giant: Zaza, desperate, starts acting up into clowning-drunken adoration of his father's penis as the source of all power. This scene serves as an indictment of all traditions that involve carefully breaking the spirit of the next generation.

Kosashvili possesses a furious spirit guarded by calm, dark wit. (Even the hero's dog seems to be collaborating with the spirit-breaking parents. When Zaza throws away the phone number of a girl he's supposed to be seeing on an arranged-marriage date, the dog fetches it back.)

In future films, I hope Kosashvili will improve his rhythms. The elder actors are slow to pick up their cues, which gives the film a slightly stagy feel. Late Marriage, however, is a more intense gut-knotter that The Sum of All Fears. More than a depiction of some fake conspiracy of America-haters, it bares the face of repression. And that naked face weeps, utters endearments, begs you to do the right thing for your family.

Late Marriage (Unrated; 100 min.), directed and written by Dover Kosashvili, photographed by Dani Schneor and starring Lior Ashkenzi and Ronit Elkabetz, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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