The opening moments of “Possessions,” the new French-Israeli drama now on HBO Max, present a family in crisis over their daughter’s impending marriage.
Nathalie is marrying Eran, a man her mother, Rosa, does not approve of. Just before the cake-cutting, the lights go out, and when they’re restored, Eran is on the floor with his throat slit — and, yes, it’s Nathalie who’s holding the bloody knife.
As the investigation progresses, the six-episode drama amplifies while gaining depth and nuance, carving a path through the lives of the characters in and around Nathalie’s family. Instead of narrowing toward a likely suspect, the action goes in several different directions at once, keeping viewers riveted and guessing as it hurtles toward the end.
In her portrayal of Nathalie, 24-year-old Nadia Tereszkiewicz seems to channel the fierce/innocent presence that Uma Thurman has embodied in various roles.
And as the story’s central lens shifts from Nathalie to other characters, the cast’s solid actors get a chance to do good work. One is Reda Kateb (Karim), who co-stars in the French version of the Israeli therapy show “Be Tipul,” which was adapted as “In Treatment” in the U.S. Another is Noa Koler (previously in “Our Boys”) as Esti, a detective who senses there’s something unusual afoot.
The narrative landscape of “Possessions” presents various ideas of what it’s like to be an outsider within Israel’s dominant culture.
Nathalie is estranged from her mother’s superstitious beliefs and, as a recent immigrant, she doesn’t quite understand her surroundings and struggles with Hebrew. Karim is a diplomat, but his Arabic name marks him as “other” within Israel’s dominant Jewish culture. And Esti the detective is deeply focused on the case, but encounters pushback from her old-school supervising detective, urging her to accept more obvious answers and stop following her instincts.
Because “Possessions” has elements common to both traditional detective narratives and supernatural stories, each episode seems to paint Nathalie differently. Is she an unfortunate victim of someone else’s machinations? A calculating femme fatale disguised in protestations of innocence? A woman at the mercy of circumstance, fate or mental illness?
As Esti and Karim ponder the enigmatic Nathalie, peripheral characters move in shadows that provoke suspicion and obfuscate motivations. Nathalie’s father, her two sisters and her dead husband’s newly religious brother are among those who present occasional tidbits. Are they red herrings or not? The audience is constantly kept guessing.
One concern that came up for me had to do with orientation: Was my Ashkenormative perspective, based in my mostly Eastern European–oriented Jewish experience, muddling my overall comprehension of the series itself? With constant mentions of Djerba, a place I’d never heard of, seeming to provide characters with context and motivation, I decided to learn more about the Tunisian island where, according to Wikipedia, Jews have lived for more than 2,500 years.
According to other sources, some believe Djerba is the island of the lotus eaters in Homer’s “Odyssey”, where the inhabitants forgot their homes and loved ones after ingesting narcotic lotus fruit and flowers. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides is said to have praised Djerba for its faith, but he expressed a low opinion of Djerba’s superstitions and spiritual capacity.
My quick research revealed that Djerbian Judaism has remained traditional and “outside the sphere of influence of the modernist currents” (Wiki) and that among Djerba inhabitants is an “unusually high” percentage of Kohanim (direct patrilineal descendants of Aaron, Judaism’s first high priest and the brother of Moses).
This anti-modernist, superstition-oriented perspective drives Rosa (the mom) and heavily influences her friend Louisa. However, Louisa is more realistically engaged in Israeli society, while Rosa is completely governed by her cultural background and beliefs, as well as her desire to protect her children (When Rosa embraces her daughters, she often whispers intensely, “I wish you were back in my womb.”)
And just when we think Rosa is rigidly traditional, we meet a mystical matchmaker who takes the characters in yet another unforeseen direction.
“Possessions” also showcases traditional Jewish rites surrounding burial, and it even gets into levirate marriage (in which a childless widow is supposed to marry her dead husband’s brother to procreate with him) — though it’s often a challenge for us to determine what is superstition and what is venerated religious tradition.
Like many others, I’ve delighted in the influx of deep, high-quality storytelling coming to the U.S. from international markets — especially Israel.
One way in which Israeli series have generally distinguished themselves is that lower budgets require the content to focus on characters, their emotions and motivations, instead of flashy and expensive effects.
In “Possessions,” it was deep character work and an unusual, creative narrative arc that kept me riveted.
It also succeeds in being very Israeli in different ways than, say, “Fauda,” which portrays the challenging decisions of a special IDF unit, or even “Shtisel,” which explores a specific religious community.
“Possessions” tells a great story, but in positioning cultural difference as a fulcrum for conflict, it also illustrates the challenge of new immigrants: trying to find their way in a culture they don’t understand and which doesn’t understand them.