Michael Dwyer, 'film critic' of The Irish Times usually has a problem with the Cannes Film Festival every year, mainly to do with the awards bestowed on films in foreign languages directed by people with unpronouncable names, starring actors that sometimes aren't really actors at all. In the past the scorn he has poured on films such as Lars Von Trier's The Idiots and the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta has been so contrary to my own impressions of those same films that by now I take his dislike of a film as a recommendation. This year, Dwyer was relatively happy (he even liked the unstarry Romanian Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) but there were a couple of films that he grumbled over, such as Raphael Nadjari's Tehilim, which I instantly resolved to see, when it got released here on Wednesday.
Nadjari is a French director who, strangely has never made a feature in France; he decamped to New York to make his first three, and in the past three years he has made two, Avanim and now Tehilim in Israel. Both films are impassive examinations of the tension between faith and secularism in contemporary Israel; both open in a Talmudic school, Avanim in Tel Aviv and Tehilim in Jerusalem. In Tehilim (the title of which means 'Psalms' in Hebrew) the devout father of a young family inexplicably goes missing after a minor car crash. The family attempts to come to terms with his disappearance, which leads to a falling-out between the secular-minded mother and her young sons, who are a good deal more observant under the guidance of their grandfather and uncle. Little happens in the film, and students of orthodox plotting will find the dénouement to be underwhelming, but Nadjari is always interested more in character than in entertainment and aided by superb performances by all the cast, he produces a quiet, unfussy drama that was never going to win much at Cannes but is more than persuasive in its own right. It is not as impressive as Avanim, which treated of the embittered reaction of a young woman born into a religious family after her secret lover is killed in a suicide attack, but should be seen by a wide (-ish) audience.