Love, loss and life lessons for Haifa teen in Matchmaker

With its focus on characters, unhurried pacing and evocation of a kinder, gentler Israel, “The Matchmaker” feels like a movie from another era.

That’s the intention of veteran director Avi Nesher’s bittersweet charmer, which unfolds in the summer of 1968 in a Haifa that feels like a small town. Seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old — and remembered 40 years later — the world looks innocent, polite and forgiving.

“The Matchmaker” screened in the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and is now having a limited national theatrical release. It opens Friday, Dec. 14 around the Bay Area.

Arik (a blank-faced Tuval Shafir) is growing up slowly, still playing children’s games and harmless pranks. He reads detective novels, but he lacks the life experience to read people.

The teenage Arik (Tuval Shafir) and librarian Meir (Dror Keren) meet on the street in Haifa.

Too bad for him, because this is a movie in which every character has a history, although they’re not keen to share it. Close to home, Arik’s parents are Holocaust survivors who brush aside any curiosity he expresses about the subject.

We come to learn that in 1968, Israelis harbored the noxious notion that the only way anyone made it through the Holocaust was by immoral behavior. The victims, already scarred, are tarred with the brush of innuendo.

Arik gradually comes to apprehend the ugly side of people when a matchmaker — a soft-spoken hustler who grew up with Arik’s father in Romania — hires the boy to spy on his clients. Nothing too sophisticated, mind you, just making sure the potential matches aren’t hiding a lover on the side.

Yankele Bride (beautifully underplayed by Adir Miller) is a good guy, although he doesn’t necessarily obey every law. His office is in a section of Haifa down by the docks, frequented by prostitutes, johns, criminals and gamblers.

As seen through Arik’s eyes, this neighborhood is picaresque rather than dangerous. It’s a haven for misfits and lost souls, like the lovely and damaged Clara (Maya Dagan, in a wide-ranging performance) who is Yankele’s friend, a coach for his less confident male clients and the object of his affection.

Arik has his whole life ahead of him and sees only possibilities. He can’t grasp that all around him are people whose dreams of happiness are out of reach, more than two decades after the Holocaust.

Nor can he fathom why anyone would judge them or begrudge them their ways of living and coping. Frankly, Arik would be a much more interesting character if he was quicker to catch on and less sweet and passive.

But maybe that’s part of what Tamara, the new girl next door who is visiting from the United States, likes about Arik. He’s not on the prowl every waking moment, like the guys in America.

Tamara is in Israel for a month, delivered by her father — who’s feeling some post–Six Day War pangs of guilt or loyalty — to live with cousins. Tamara revels in her sexuality and freedom and plainly wishes Arik would muster the courage to make a move.

The various romantic subplots intersect and overlap, but mildly rather than forcefully.

“The Matchmaker” is a movie in which most of the characters don’t get what they want or what they need, yet we’re only fleetingly encouraged to feel their pain and loneliness.

At those moments, “The Matchmaker” achieves real poignancy. More often, though, it settles for an air of benign nostalgia.


“The Match-maker” opens Friday, Dec. 14 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (Not rated, 112 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.