If you’ve never seen Late Marriage with Lior Ashkenazi, cancel your plans tonight and watch the movie that made him an international film star. Twenty years later he remains ever-winning. I mention Ashkenazi because he’s once again in the marital mix. He and his karaoke machine are the catalysts for the protagonists in the new Israeli film Karaoke.
Writer/Director Moshe Rosenthal (Confess) makes his feature debut with this critique of a long-time union. It’s a sometimes funny, often searing view of Meir (Sasson Gabay – The Band’s Visit) and Tova (Rita Shukrun – Line In The Sand), a 60-something Sephardic couple together for nearly a half-century. Other than visits from their grown, disinterested daughters and an annual trip to Rhodes, they’re suffocating in the sameness of their comfortable, middle-class life in an apartment complex just outside Tel Aviv. Tova, attractive and gregarious, works in a boutique and spends more time focused on maintaining a striking outward appearance than on her husband. She’s bored with and disappointed by her listless, downbeat spouse. Meir, the more cerebral of the two, is a professor on sabbatical. His wants and needs, on the other hand, are an unknown.
Into their lives comes an eruption and disruption when enigmatic bachelor Itsik (Ashkenazi) moves back to the country from Miami. A modeling agent, he throws loud parties in his penthouse, accompanied by fast cars and beautiful people. He introduces a frisson of excitement into their ho-hum existence, rubbing off immediately on Meir. He and Tova are unlike the fabulous industry types Itsik normally associates with and he, at least initially, takes an interest in Meir, encouraging him to try modeling. The ripple effect releases something in the buttoned up Meir. He colours his hair and puts on new clothes. The surface changes delight Tova until feelings of jealousy, resentment and long-festering complacency compel them to assess what they mean to each other and if they want a future together.
Karaoke is a 2022 Jerusalem Film Festival Audience Award Winner and a Best First Feature Winner, and it’s not hard to see why. Decades-long, lived-in marriages are rarely explored on screen and Rosenthal’s messy, fraught character study makes for good drama. Inhabited by Gabay and Shukrun, they are utterly believable as two people who have taken each other for granted and rediscover both themselves and each other.