Long devoted to notions of romantic love, Westerners remain profoundly uncomfortable with the concept of arranged marriages. And it's precisely that discomfort Mira Nair memorably addressed in Monsoon Wedding, her celebration of an arranged Indian marriage that dares suggest romantic love can follow as well as precede an act of matrimony. For the flip side of that argument, we can attend a screening of writer/director Dover Koshashvili's Late Marriage, an ultimately devastating look at an arranged marriage in contemporary Israel.
Late Marriage is the story of Zaza (Lior Louie Ashkenazi), an unmarried 31-year-old philosophy student whose traditional Georgian parents try to set him up with every girl in Tel Aviv. Zaza is handsome and bright, but he's never even been engaged. So father Yasha (Moni Moshonov) and mother Lili (Lili Koshashvili) employ a matchmaker to assist them in finding the right girl for their son. As our tale begins we witness an old-fashioned mating call, one in a long series for Zaza.
This picture, somewhat mysteriously, bills itself as a romantic comedy, and if there are laughs, they arrive in the small apartment where the mating ritual is performed. The girl Zaza meets is a 17-year-old high school senior named Ilana (gorgeous Liv-Tyler lookalike Aya Steinovits Laor). While gathered in a stiff, formal circle (by tradition no refreshments of any kind are served) the family members talk about the prospective bride and groom the way the owners of champion thoroughbreds must negotiate stud and mare arrangements. Eventually, Lili is allowed a short private interview with Ilana in her bedroom, and after the girl has gone out to meet Zaza, Lili places a magic charm under Ilana's bed. The charm is a preserved foreskin of a circumcised 8-day-old boy (I kid you not), and given Zaza's track record you wonder how many acts of the bris have been performed in vain.
With both in the room together, Zaza and Ilana are discussed as if they are choice cuts of meat. Then the would-be lovers are sent back to Ilana's bedroom to get acquainted. It's not quite clear what all might be permitted during this encounter, but making out and darting hands are not out of bounds. Alas, Ilana is frank about her desire to marry a rich man, and though Zaza is not immune to the young girl's considerable physical charms, he doesn't much like her. So the hunt must go on.
And then we find out why a suitable mate is so elusive for Zaza: because he's long been involved with an unsuitable mate, a divorced woman named Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), the mother of an adorable 6-year-old daughter (Sapir Kugman). Much of the interaction we observe between Zaza and Judith takes place in bed with both casually naked in the way established couples routinely are. They talk. They tease. They engage in a long and frankly depicted act of lovemaking that is shocking only in its honesty. And finally they sleep.
Judith would like to marry Zaza, but he keeps telling her they should wait until he's finished his doctoral studies. Eventually we discover that Zaza has just been dodging his parents' inevitable wrath. They want Zaza settled, and they want grandchildren, but he knows they'll never approve his marrying a divorced woman, a slightly older woman to boot, and he's reluctant to confront their entrenched objections.
What Zaza doesn't entirely grasp is that his parents and the rest of his extended family are well aware of Judith and growing increasingly impatient for him to dump her as they have always assumed he will. Finally, they confront the two lovers in Judith's apartment, denounce her as a whore and demand that Zaza break up with her immediately. That he agrees, even temporarily, undresses his character far more embarrassingly than when he was merely physically unclothed. And here is revealed a human phenomenon with which some American parents can all so unfortunately identify: at 31, Zaza remains more a pampered teen than a grown man. He lives off his family's largess, continuing his school to advanced age, paying for his comfortable lifestyle with his father's credit card. Yasha and Lili are despicable, but in his failure to cut the umbilical cord of comfort twined with control, Zaza is perhaps even more so.
And therein lies a considerable problem: we are set up to care about this story's protagonist, but in the end we regard him with contempt. He hasn't learned anything, and neither have we. We regarded arranged marriages with horror when we arrived, and we go home wondering if the persistence of such traditions isn't a cancer on an entire culture. That's probably Koshashvili's exact point, but we still leave the theater not enlightened or encouraged but merely dismayed.
- The hunt for a suitable mate seems endless for a 31-year-old bachelor in Late Marriage.