Sarah (left) and Hagar form an unlikely bond in “Harmonia.”
Sarah (left) and Hagar form an unlikely bond in “Harmonia.”

Midrash on film: Biblical drama unfolds as modern heartbreak

Abraham is the conductor of the Jerusalem orchestra. His wife, Sarah, is a harpist in the orchestra. They long for a child; there have been miscarriages. When a young horn player from East Jerusalem, Hagar, joins the orchestra, all lives begin to warp in ways at once obvious and surprising.

You know this story.

Sort of.

The 2016 Israeli film “Harmonia” is a modern retelling of the events of Genesis 16-22, so the bones of the narrative are laid out ahead of time to those with even a passing familiarity with the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac.

Yet the film is also replete with surprise. The parallels are intentionally inexact. Small adjustments to the story, the modern setting and a willingness to take seriously the intimate desires of women and children add up to something new yet recognizable.

“Harmonia” is part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, showing at the Castro in San Francisco on July 21, CineArts in Palo Alto on July 22, Albany Twin on Aug. 5 and at Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on Aug. 6

Like the family dramas of the Torah, “Harmonia” loves flawed people. They are shot in tender, humanizing imagery with soft light and an attention to the feelings in the scene rather than movement within it.

Though it is far from a silent movie, dialogue is often sparse. Thus, the camera needs to spend a great deal of time and attention on the actors’ faces; important revelations often occur with a glance, leaving pain and passion unspoken. Puzzling through them, and making inferences from small indications, make viewing “Harmonia” not unlike reading Torah or midrashic stories.

Hagar is depicted as speaking Arabic and living in East Jerusalem, but the political angle one might expect never shows up. Unlike so many Israeli movies that could only possibly be about contemporary Israel, this story could take place anywhere; the details of current affairs in Israel are irrelevant.

The movie is split into chunks: Before Ismail is born; Ismail at 13, along with baby Isaac; Isaac at 10; etc. The sections are bookended by title cards with verses from Genesis that roughly connect with that part of the story.

The desires of Hagar and Sarah are an obvious place to expand, and “Harmonia” doesn’t miss the opportunity. Sarah is vivacious, while Hagar is somewhat shy. They strike up an unusually tender, intimate friendship quickly, though Abraham has little patience for Hagar initially. After Sarah suffers another miscarriage, Abraham declares Hagar a member of the family for her dedication in caring for Sarah.

After this, Hagar offers to give them a child with Abraham. She does not want one for herself, but feels called to do it for Abraham and Sarah.

Sarah and Abraham call the child Ben. We first see him at age 10, angrily but skillfully hammering away at a piano. His relationship with both parents is strained, and he is highly resentful of baby Isaac, whom Abraham clearly loves more. When Hagar re-enters their life after a long absence, he senses a connection with her. Child actor Itai Shcherback who plays Ben is a revelation; he burns with quiet resentment, able to convey complex, strong emotions with eyes alone.

Though neither Hagar nor Ben are sent away (as are their counterparts in Genesis), one can feel Abraham and Sarah pushing them away. So they leave, and Ben starts to go by the name Ismail (the Arabic form of Ishmael).

Unlike Ismail, Isaac is a darling of Abraham and Sarah. Where Ismail sailed around on roller blades sullenly listening to his headphones, Isaac dresses up in a pint-size tuxedo for a violin recital and plays a composition Abraham wrote just for him (one gets a hint of Joseph’s colorful coat here). Tamir Tavor, the child violinist who portrays Isaac, plays him with a wide-eyed impressionability. He does not know the anguished relationships he lives among, but he knows something’s not right.

Full of sorrow and tension, “Harmonia” veers off in a surprisingly joyous direction when Isaac comes across physical evidence of the half-brother he’d all but forgotten in infancy. Mirroring more the story of Jacob and Esau in the final act, the movie suddenly begins to rocket to an exciting conclusion that satisfyingly resolves the hanging emotional threads of Genesis.

“Harmonia” screens at 8:55 p.m. July 21 at Castro Theatre, S.F.; 8:55 p.m. July 22 at CineArts, Palo Alto; 2:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at Albany Twin, Albany; and 12 p.m. Aug 6 at Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. (Unrated, 98 minutes, Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].