Set in a cavelike workshop, in dimly lit rooms, in alleyways and under heavy cloud cover, “Restoration” (“Boker Tov, Adon Fidelman”) is almost entirely devoid of sunlight. It’s a surprising choice for a movie that takes place in Tel Aviv, a seaside city that is far more sunny than gray. And yet, the color palette is a fitting backdrop for the dark and beautiful story.
“Restoration,” a new film from director Yossi Madmoni, was the only Israeli picture to be named as an official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
The film’s finely drawn protagonist is Yakov Fidelman (Sasson Gabai), an elderly recluse who has spent his entire working life sanding, stripping and polishing antique pieces of furniture to return them to their original glory. Shut up in his atelier, Yakov wants “to escape to a dark place, almost like a hibernating animal,” Madmoni told the Forward. After the death of his charismatic business partner, Malamud, Yakov learns that the furniture restoration business is on the verge of collapse and, without financing, destined to shutter. To complicate matters, Malamud has left his half of the failing workshop to Yakov’s son, Noah (Nevo Kimchi), who is young enough to help his father secure a mortgage, but nevertheless seems determined to sell off the property.
Hope comes not through any rapprochement between father and son, but thanks to the discovery by Yakov’s mysterious new apprentice, Anton (Henry David), of an 1882 Steinway in the back of the workshop. With some significant repairs, the piano would be worth more than enough to keep the business afloat. A classical pianist by training, Anton dedicates himself to salvaging the Steinway — doing much of the work his boss’s increasingly unsteady hand cannot complete.
“Restoration” marks Madmoni’s first feature as a solo director, and his first time directing another writer’s script. In 2003 he co-wrote and co-directed “The Barbecue People.” The family drama, about an Iraqi-Israeli clan that gathers to mark Israel’s Independence Day, was nominated for 12 Israeli Film Academy awards. Since then, Madmoni has been working primarily as a writer for Israeli television. He served as script editor for “Srugim,” a popular sitcom about the social life of Modern Orthodox young adults, and more recently, as a writer for “Haim Aherim” (“Another Life”), a dramatic series about a yeshiva student who dreams of becoming a dancer.
Madmoni said that in the early versions of the screenplay, “Restoration” revolved around the question of whether or not the store would be saved. The director worked on the script alongside screenwriter Erez Kav-El, a colleague on “Haim Aherim,” for about a year and a half. What resulted was a story in which the survival of the shop became secondary to the two love triangles — one familial, the other romantic. There’s one love triangle, involving Yakov, Noah and Anton, “between a father, his biological son and his spiritual son,” Madmoni told a Sundance audience, and another between Noah, Anton and Noah’s very pregnant wife, Hava (Sarah Adler).
Although no American distributor had signed the film as the festival closed, the quality of the writing made it an audience favorite. Even the Sundance jury was taken with the story, and Kav-El carried home this year’s top honor in the world cinema dramatic screenwriting category.
Unlike other contemporary Israeli films that have been well received in America, “Restoration” is not about regional conflict (“Waltz With Bashir,” “Lebanon”) or religion (“Ushpizin,” “Kadosh”). So on one level, it’s a family story that transcends cultural boundaries and national borders; on another, though, it is a requiem to a pre-cosmopolitan Tel Aviv — replete with low-rise buildings, small stores and people working with their hands. That part of Tel Aviv is “getting smaller with each passing year,” said Madmoni, who saw “Restoration” as an opportunity to film what’s left of Old Tel Aviv before it all but disappears behind glassy high-rises and retail chains. He even hired a quartet of street musicians that performs outside his daughter’s school to play small but key roles in the film.
Madmoni, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Jerusalem, now calls Tel Aviv home. His mother’s family came to what is now Israel from Iraq in the late 19th century, and his father’s family emigrated from Yemen around the same time. The yeshiva and film school graduate, who keeps the Sabbath but does not wear a yarmulke in public, said he is still religious — if not by his late father’s Haredi standards.
“In religious neighborhoods, fathers and sons have a lot of quality time together,” Madmoni said. Fathers “give their sons lessons; they walk you to synagogue and walk you home.” Which is why, he surmises, he is particularly drawn to stories about the inherent complications of father-son relationships — also a theme of his next movie.
“My father was religious, and I am not religious in his terms,” he said during an interview. “Like Noah [in the film], I did not take the torch from my father.”
What he did take from his father was the inspiration for the film’s first and final scenes, which provide rare glimpses of faith. As the movie opens, Anton encounters a man offering to help passersby wrap tefillin. The first time he sees the man, he walks right by; the second time, he considers the offer. “It’s not a religious film, but religion is an option for someone searching for himself,” Madmoni said.
Gabrielle Birkner is the web editor of the Forward.