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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: Late Marriage (2001)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dover Koshashvili
Starring: Lior Louie Ashkenazi, Ronit Elkabetz

It occurred to me recently that I am now the age that my mother was when I was born. At 26 she was married, a parent, and had a mortgage and other significant responsibilities, whereas I… am thinking about getting a puppy. I look at the people I know who are my age and my brother’s age and think, “People used to be more grown up by now.” At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with anything, but bear with me because it is (kind of) relevant to the film I want to discuss, Dover Koshashvili’s Late Marriage.

The story centers on Zaza (Lior Louie Ashkenazi) who, at 31, is still regarded by those around him as a child. He’s a university student working at getting his PhD in philosophy and he’s financially supported by his parents, who want desperately to get him married. In the opening scenes he’s brought to the home of a prospective bride and the two families sit together and converse in a rigid and formal way, discussing the qualities of the potential bride and groom as if they were comparing notes on livestock. The girl is 17 and while her uncle is enthusiastic about the prospect of getting her settled with a husband, her mother seems more inclined to give her time before she takes on such adult responsibilities. Their opposing desires ultimately make little difference, as Zaza has no more intention of marrying this girl than any of the other girls and women his parents have had paraded in front of him.

The woman Zaza really wants is Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), a divorcee with a young daughter. Zaza and Judith have been seeing each other for some time, but he knows that his parents would never accept her. His father (Moni Moshonov) already knows about the relationship and pressures Zaza to end it. When his words fail to have an effect, he organizes a posse of family members to bust in on the lovers and force the end of the relationship either by intimidating Judith into breaking it off, or by embarrassing Zaza into doing the same. The group comes into Judith’s home, tosses her things around, rips up photos of her and Zaza, and at one point Zaza's uncle holds a sword to her throat (and all this in front of her daughter). It’s an ugly scene but also a fascinating one, particularly for what it (and the scenes that follow) tells us about Zaza.

All things considered, Zaza had a pretty sweet deal for a while. His parents paid for his apartment and his car and the credit card with which he bought whatever he wanted, including things for Judith and her daughter. He could play house with Judith, coming and going as he pleased and knowing that he could always fall back on the fact that his parents would never approve of their relationship to keep it from becoming any more officially committed. When his family busts in on them, he gives in to their pressure and breaks up with Judith and then leaves with his family only to return later alone, apparently thinking that things can just go back to the way they were before. Judith isn’t having it and sends him away, though he continues to call her and beg her to take him back. When Zaza’s mother (Lili Koshashvili, mother of the film’s director) goes back to Judith’s home to make peace and learns that her son still calls, she begins to soften somewhat. She also begins to respect Judith and later confesses to her husband that if push came to shove, she would accept her as a daughter-in-law. The problem is that Zaza is so afraid of disappointing his parents that he fails to see the cracks in his mother’s defenses and so gives in by finally giving up Judith for good.

And yet, that seems too simple a solution for what we’ve seen happen. The night of the ambush, Zaza sees his family laying in wait outside Judith’s building, his dog having discovered their car on the other side of the parking lot. He jokingly tells Judith to get dressed up because she’s going to meet his parents, and then he just lets the situation explode. Why does he do it? Perhaps because he’s so lacking in maturity that he dreads the prospect of having to be responsible for his own choices. If he took a stand and chose to marry Judith and ended up miserable, it would be his own fault. If, however, he allows his parents to control his options, then whatever unhappiness he has in the future will always be their fault because they forced him to give up the woman he really wanted.

The film is merciless in its portrayal of Zaza and his family, reserving its sympathy for Judith and her daughter and the woman Zaza eventually marries (as well it should). Zaza is a difficult character because he’s one defined by incredible and almost contemptible weakness, but Ashkenazi is able to give him some depth and shading, conveying the self-loathing Zaza feels as a result of his inability to grow in maturity as he grows with age. You might pity him if the film itself ever let him off the hook.

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