The Israeli movie Once I Was (Pa'am Hayiti) was shown in the US with the title The Matchmaker (2010). It was written and directed by Avi Nesher. The film was very popular in Israel, where it won four Israeli Academy Awards. The other reviewers of this film are either Israelis or are familiar with Israeli culture, so they can do a better job than I can discussing the reality of the movie. For example, it is set in the seaport of Haifa in 1968, and there are questions about the authenticity of the sets and the accents. I will leave these topics to the experts.
I'm reviewing the film more on its plot and acting. The plot is fascinating. A Holocaust survivor, Yankele Bride (Adir Miller) is a smuggler and petty criminal. That's his profession, but his hobby is matchmaking. His job is to find mates for people who, for whatever reason, are considered undesirable.
The saddest of these people is a young woman, Sylvia, who is very beautiful but has achondroplasia. (The role is played by the extraordinary actress Bat-El Papura.) Sylva wants to be married, but no person of normal height will consider her as a spouse. Even the hapless character called Meir the Librarian turns away from Sylvia when he meets her. Yankele does his best for her, but he never succeeds.
The most obvious theme of the movie is a coming-of-age story of Arik Burstein (Tuval Shafir), whose father is also a Holocaust survivor. Arik starts work as Yankele's "spy," the person who checks out the matchmaker's clients to make sure that they are who and what they say they are. (There's another theme about a visiting American cousin, who is a liberated young woman, but that subplot never goes anywhere.)
The key theme, as I saw it, is that Holocaust survivors were welcomed to Israel, but they weren't admired or honored. As Arik's father says, "people always want to know what we had to do in order to survive." The clash of cultures--eastern European survivors who were seen as victims vs. Israelis who had fought for independence--is in the background of the entire movie. (Sometimes this clash is overt, sometimes it's subtle, but it's always there.)
Of course, Arik is impressed by the brash, streetwise Yankele, as opposed to his own quiet, respectable father. We are supposed to be impressed by Yankele too, because his criminal activities are treated as amusing foibles. I don't think that smuggling goods into Israel was an appropriate way to thank the country that took you in, but he is definitely a likable character in the movie. Each viewer will have to decide about Yankele for herself or himself.
I liked this film well enough to suggest that it's worth seeing if it comes along. I'm not sure it's a movie I would seek out for viewing. We saw The Matchmaker at the excellent Rochester Jewish Film Festival, screened at the wonderful Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House. It will work equally well on a small screen.