From left: Margo (Suzanna Papian) and Amitay (Adir Milller) in "The Monkey House." (SFJFF)
From left: Margo (Suzanna Papian) and Amitay (Adir Milller) in "The Monkey House." (SFJFF)

S.F. Jewish Film Festival: Israeli comedy ‘The Monkey House’ exudes ’80s nostalgia

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“Writers lie a lot. After all, what is literature but one big lie?” states Amitay Kariv, the fictional novelist and main character of the Israeli comedy “The Monkey House.” It’s the most honest thought he expresses in a film filled with main characters who all have something to hide.

Set in 1989 Tel Aviv, the film follows Amitay (Adir Miller), a once-successful Israeli novelist, as he tries to pull off an elaborate con. It’s his desperate attempt to regain the public’s lost interest in his works and win over Tamar (Shani Cohen), the woman he’s pined for his entire life.

“If there’s anything worse than being hated, it’s being ignored,” he explains to his feisty, young accomplice, Margo (Suzanna Papian).

Directed by Avi Nesher, one of the most beloved directors in Israel, “The Monkey House” premiered there last year and was nominated for 11 Ophir awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars, though it didn’t win any. The title of the film, which screens at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 25, is a reference to where Amitay lives: his uncle’s former house, nestled in a lush, remote area outside of Tel Aviv near an abandoned monkey park.

“The Monkey House” is clever, witty and full of surprises and mystery. It’s also a beautiful film with gorgeous sets, retro wardrobes and a soundtrack replete with 1980s jams. Tamar’s crisp skirt suits and dresses juxtaposed with Margo’s combat boots, dramatic makeup and leg-warmers with shorts add to the nostalgic warmth the film exudes for the ’80s.

There are three storylines that play out in the film, each one adding suspense and complications to the others. The performances, particularly Papian as Margo, inject the humor into the plot.

Amitay hires Margo, a broke, aspiring actress, to work as his assistant for one month as he excitedly prepares for the arrival of Gal, an Israeli graduate student in Colorado who is writing her Ph.D. on Amitay’s novels. He’s enthusiastic that the dissertation will become a book that will cement his legacy in the Israeli literary canon. He is also convinced the fame will impress Tamar, his best friend and love interest since childhood whose husband recently died.

Relatively early in the film, Amitay learns that Gal can no longer visit or complete the interviews, which dooms her dissertation because her funding will soon run out. In an attempt to help Gal and himself, Amitay decides Margo can impersonate her and conduct the interviews herself. 

The scenes showing Margo’s makeover and evolution from ’80s punk to buttoned-up researcher are among the most fun parts of the film, showing a transformation reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” and Brittany Murphy in “Clueless.”

When Margo comes down the stairs to show Amitay her new look, she reaches under her skirt to pull a wedgie from the pantyhose she is unaccustomed to wearing.

“What? Pantyhose don’t get stuck in a Ph.D. candidate’s butt crack?” Margo snaps at Amitay, who is disappointed in her uncouth ways.

The two are able to pull off the con successfully at first, but not everyone is convinced. Amir (Ala Dakka), a documentarian directing a film on 20th-century Palestinian and Israeli authors, can tell something is amiss. He, along with his producer, start to investigate, determined to uncover the truth and, with any luck, make their greatest film yet.

Suspense builds when another, now-impossible love connection begins to take shape. 

The complicated plot is thought-provoking and shows compassion toward its flawed, deceitful characters, enabling us to see their deeper motivations and redeeming qualities.

“The Monkey House” (128 minutes, Hebrew and Italian with English subtitles) screens at 3 p.m. Thursday, July 25, at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.