Festival offers rare chance to see smash hit from Israel

Despite being Israel’s biggest box office hit of 2008, “Lost Islands” hasn’t been picked up for distribution in the United States, so the only place to see it is in a festival like the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Lucky for us.

On the lineup for showings in San Francisco, Berkeley and Palo Alto, “Lost Islands” is both funny and heartrending, and its earnest blend of comedy and tragedy makes the movie compelling and fun to watch.

The Levi family is the centerpiece of “Lost Islands,” which is set in the early 1980s. Avraham and Sima Levi have five sons, including twins who are in their final year of high school. The teenage boys love cinema, American ’80s pop music and girls.

One of the twins, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), is ebullient, a constant funnyman and risk-taker. The other, Erez (Michael Moshonov), is serious and more reserved, and favors quiet brooding to his brother’s clowning around.

Their father (Shmil Ben Ari) is a quirky, stern man who raises cacti and compares the plants to the Jews (both are survivors under any circumstance). He believes life is about dreaming big, and fulfilling those dreams.

His wife (Orly Silbersatz) is a loving mother most intent on helping her son Ofer achieve his life-long goal of entering the Israeli army’s elite commando unit.

Though the twins are almost finished with high school, the center of their lives is the family. They dance around together in their family room and gather on the sofa to watch their favorite TV series, about a group of people living on an island, trapped in time.

 

Members of the Levi family enjoy a happy moment in the Israeli hit “Lost Islands.” photo/courtesy of the sfjff

But when Erez discovers a shocking family secret and accidentally triggers a family catastrophe, things begin to fall apart, and he starts to suffer under the weight of his secret. Meanwhile, the twins befriend a redheaded beauty at school who captures both of their hearts.

 

The secrecy and the girlfriend competition strain their friendship and their brotherhood. And as if that wasn’t enough drama, the 1982 Lebanon War is beginning.

Reshef Levi made his directorial debut with a fine cast, and the film is superbly acted. The movie won four Ophir Awards, Israel’s Oscar equivalent: best actor (Moshonov as Erez), best supporting actor (Ben Ari as Avraham), best music and best costume design.

So why has the film been ignored by every U.S. distributor? “It’s a big disappointment,” Israeli producer David Zilber told the Los Angeles Times, which ran the headline “Is Israeli film ‘Lost Islands’ too funny for U.S.?” when the film made its U.S. debut in the Israeli Film Festival in Hollywood last month.

Zilber presented one theory in the Times article, saying that U.S. distributors want small, art-house dramas from overseas rather than popular comedies.

But while “Lost Islands” invites viewers in with its catchy soundtrack of American pop music and universal humor, it also asks deep, difficult questions about honesty, war and a son’s dreams versus his family’s wishes.

It’s thoughtful and entertaining, funny and sad, and complex. In fact, it’s got so much going for it that there’s a good deal of interest in doing an American remake, according to Zilber.

So there. Just because there’s no U.S. distributor doesn’t mean this film doesn’t have a lot to offer.

“Lost Islands” screens at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 28 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; 9 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Roda Theater, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley; and Aug. 5 at Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Information: www.sfjff.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.