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Late marriage

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''That's not our way'' is a phrase that rings like an alarm through Dover Kosashvili's harshly funny comedy, ''Late Marriage.'' It is spoken more than once by Lily (Lili Kosashvili, the filmmaker's mother) to her handsome 31-year-old bachelor son, Zaza (Lior Louie Ashkenzi), a graduate student in philosophy in Tel Aviv. The first time she says it, the words sound like a disapproving mother chiding a rebellious child. The second time, they have the ominous force of a warning from on high.

By then, it has become clear that the family values in the world under the film's excoriating microscope -- a tradition-bound clan of immigrants from Soviet Georgia living in Israel -- are radically different from those in the West. This is a society in which a young man over 30 who hasn't married and begun producing children threatens to disgrace his family.

Strict tradition dictates, moreover, that any wife he chooses be younger and a virgin. Until he toes the line and chooses an appropriate bride, he might as well abandon any hopes he might have had of avoiding parental intrusion into his affairs. Zaza's parents are wholly within their rights to intervene in ways that would seem outrageous to most Westerners. As much as Zaza squirms under the pressure, he knows this and accepts it.

As the movie forcefully reminds us, arranged marriage may be an antiquated tradition in the West, but it still flourishes largely unchallenged in many other parts of the world. It also reminds us that marital laws and customs are so fundamental to the structure of any society that they affect every aspect of culture, since they ultimately define what it means to be a man or a woman. Until Zaza chooses an appropriate wife and produces children, his father screams at him (at one point even spitting venomously in his face), he isn't a man.

Films criticizing such traditionalist values aim at the most primal emotions, and ''Late Marriage'' is one of several recent movies to push those buttons. In 2000 the Israeli film ''Kadosh'' offered an inflammatory critique of ultra-Orthodox Jewish marital customs from a non-Orthodox perspective. It is not much different in the Muslim world. In the recent Iranian film ''Leila,'' a woman destroys her daughter-in-law's infertile marriage and pressures her son, a doctor, to take another wife to produce a grandchild. In both those films, beautiful, devoted wives are blamed for their barren marriages and disgraced and ostracized.

Although the situation in ''Late Marriage'' isn't as extreme, it, too, portrays marriage as an institution founded on the concept of advantageous breeding and features a liberated woman who is blamed for its central character's weakness.

The movie's early scenes observe an excruciating, mordantly funny matchmaking ritual in which Zaza is presented to an eligible (and arrogant) 17-year-old girl, while the parents of the prospective bride and groom chatter tensely in another room. Although Zaza's family can't force him to marry a particular woman (we learn that he has rejected dozens of others before this), the time is fast approaching when he must settle on someone. The evaluation and bargaining that accompany this ritual feel uncomfortably like horse trading.

It isn't until after this meeting that the film reveals the real reason for Zaza's protracted bachelorhood. He has been carrying on an affair with Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), an attractive older woman who is divorced and has a young daughter. Zaza is deeply in love with Judith, and the depth of their passion is shown in a protracted, remarkably naturalistic sex scene that reveals the complicated dynamics of these two strong-willed lovers.

The heart of the movie, which the New Directors/New Films series is showing this evening and tomorrow at the Museum of Modern Art, is the campaign by Zaza's family to break up the couple. The operation is planned and carried out like a military strike. Zaza's parents and relatives arrive en masse at Judith's apartment and wait outside in cars until Zaza appears. Then they storm the premises, taking the couple by surprise and yelling insults (and even death threats) at Judith, wearing the couple down with their relentless intimidation.

As ugly and shocking as the scene may be to Western sensibilities, Zaza's ambivalent response to these storm-trooper tactics makes it clear that given the situation, they are only to be expected. Later, the depth of the family values ingrained in Zaza is revealed in a tearful father-son reconciliation in which the son, in gratitude and humility, falls impulsively to his knees and kisses his father's crotch, whence emanated the seed of his birth. That moment, at once touching and grotesquely funny, distills the raw emotions uncovered by this powerful and very bitter comedy.
Date Added: 04/30/2013 by Anzori Gvritishvili
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