Does Orthodox tradition interfere with a loving relationship, or does the relationship interfere with Orthodox tradition? In Israeli writer-director Dover Koshashvili's bitter tragicomedy Late Marriage, the answer could be fairly interpreted as the former, the latter, or both, which is a large part of its extraordinary audacity and power. Modern films about arranged marriages are routinely played for broad laughs (East Is East, Jalla! Jalla!) or high tragedy (Kadosh, Leila), invariably dismissing the tradition as antiquated and silly. But Koshashvili isn't so quick to cast definitive judgments on either side: Just when his point of view seems obvious, his sympathies shift in another direction, adding fresh insights to a ruinous situation. His feelings are especially ambivalent toward his central character, a 31-year-old bachelor who's simultaneously progressive and spineless, a victim of circumstance partially responsible for his own undoing. The disgraceful son of Soviet Georgian immigrants in Tel Aviv, Lior Ashkenazi has slouched well past a respectable marrying age, in spite of the aggressive efforts of his mother (Lili Koshashvili, the director's mother) and father (Moni Moshonov) to find him a suitable bride. An early forced courtship with a 17-year-old, as both extended families huddle awkwardly in the next room, typifies Ashkenazi's apathy toward prospective mates, which embarrasses and infuriates his conservative parents. Rightly suspecting that Ashkenazi is seeing another woman behind their backs, they take drastic steps to sabotage his loving relationship with Ronit Elkabetz, an attractive divorcée and single mother who bears the additional shame of being older than him. Composed of several long, keenly observed scenes—each one a conversation piece unto itself—Late Marriage brings rich dimension to every character, yet it's wonderfully elusive, inviting a full range of responses without ever settling on them. If Koshashvili reserves unabashed sympathy for anyone, it's Elkabetz, whose shabby treatment stems from her unfortunate position outside the inner circle. But he mostly keeps his distance, allowing cultural issues of masculinity and assimilation to tangle themselves into a knot. He doesn't do much with the camera (the script would probably work just as well on the stage), but his matter-of-fact minimalism pays dividends in at least three bravura setpieces: a justly heralded sex scene that sets a new standard for on-screen intimacy, a harrowing tag-team confrontation in Elkabetz's apartment, and a high-wire finale that's a celebration and a dirge rolled into one. A daring and immediate debut feature for Koshashvili, Late Marriage could lead two likeminded people to opposite conclusions, and that may be its greatest strength.
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