Wedding Doll (Hatuna MeNiyar)

Israel (2015) Dir. Nitzan Giladi

It might surprise people to learn that Israel has quite a robust film industry dating back to the days of silent cinema, and is among the most nominated countries for the Foreign Language Oscar. This debut feature from documentary maker Nitzan Giladi – while not a nominated film – is a fine example of why this is.   

Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt) is a 24 year-old woman with a mental handicap, working in a toilet paper factory and in a secret relationship with the owner’s son Omri (Roy Assaf), hoping he will be the one to fulfil her obsessive dream of becoming a bride. To drop hints, Hagit makes tiny dolls of brides using toilet paper but Omri doesn’t seem to bite.

Marriage will stay a dream if Hagit’s mother Sara (Assi Levy) has any say on the matter, a divorcee left to raise a daughter she fears can’t cope independently in a cruel society. When Hagit’s boss Aryeh (Aryeh Cherner) announces he has to shut down the factory, Sara tries to rein in Hagit’s determination to find work further afield from home without hurting or upsetting her.

Lasting a sprightly 82 minutes Wedding Doll packs an almighty punch in that time, taking the bold route of building up the misery with nary a beacon of hope until the very last moment and even then that has solemn overtones. Apologies if that seems like I’ve broken my “no spoiler” rule but in this instance, there is no way of avoiding this with regard to discussing how the story unfolds.

Nitzan Giladi may have swapped documentaries for fictional films but there are traces of the research elements of the former here. Giladi doesn’t appear to have pulled this story idea out of thin air, the plight of Hagit certainly feels intent on raising awareness of how people with mental difficulties are viewed and treated in society.

While Hagit is an easily sympathetic character, she doesn’t court it nor is one we should pity – any reaction of this kind is purely instinctive on the audience’s part. Hagit is rarely seen without a genuinely happy smile; she is a warm, kind soul, approaching each day with enthusiastic optimism.

The big issue is that Hagit doesn’t understand what is wrong with her or why her mother is so overprotective towards her. Despite the arguments with Hagit and incurring her resentment of being mollycoddled against her will, Sara is not the enemy in this tale. She is a single mother trying her best to give her daughter a safe and happy life which comes at a huge personal cost to her own life.    

Sara has one marriage already behind her to Hagit’s father, which also produced an older son Chen (Tomer Kapon), now a married father himself who thinks Hagit should be in a home. When not working as a hotel cleaner, Sara is forced to sneak off to spend time with her new beau Haim (Oded Leopold), whose patience with her is waning fast.

The irony is not lost on the viewer that both mother and daughter are hiding secret romances from each other, typifying the communication issues that blight their own relationship. Sara can’t explain to Hagit why certain things in life are out of her reach – such as a seamstress job she applied for hoping it would lead to dress designing – or why she is different from others.

Hagit is the subject of abuse but tacit and upfront in her daily life, from a young girl who torments her with catcalls of “weirdo”, to Omri’s drug taking laddish mates who tease him for liking “a retard”. The latter plays an important part in the film’s denouement, an uncomfortable scene that threatens to go further than it does, but the ominous intent is still unpleasant enough.

Omri too is another person trapped by his circumstances, his character being used more to critique the parochial mentality of a small community. Ayreh’s willingness to close the factory galvanises Omri to persuade his father to invest in modern equipment and help turn the business around, but the old man refuses to listen. A surprise proposal from Ayreh reveals an ironic twist in this clash of perspectives.

Ultimately the theme of this film is about understanding and the lack thereof, whether through ignorance, pure circumstance, or blissful unawareness. If everyone could show this simple courtesy or could be in a position where they could be explained things in a palatable manner then life would be okay; but it isn’t and Giladi has painted a sombre but deeply affecting picture of all the inherent problems the lack of understanding presents.

The film is essentially driven by Hagit and Sara. As the latter, Assi Levy astutely essays the loving mother forced to play “good cop, bad cop” with her own daughter under much duress. But Moran Rosenblatt’s star making performance as Hagit is the real attraction, a subtly sublime and carefully nuanced delineation of a simple woman in complex world, yet there is one facet which raises an interesting issue, that being Hagit’s physical appearance.

Rosenblatt is a strikingly attractive woman, thus the always smiley, red lipstick wearing Hagit looks pretty in every scene. If this were a Hollywood film with an absurdly glamorous cast I would have objected, but – as hypocritical as this sounds – with Hagit it reminds us that being mentally handicapped doesn’t automatically make the sufferer a twisted, deformed figure of repulsion and that even the beautiful can be affected.

The lack of an explicitly hopeful conclusion to this hard hitting and often gnarly tale has left many to feel unsatisfied with Wedding Doll but for this writer, it felt right and congruent with the pervasive sense of uncertainty the film is built around. Beautifully shot and directed with confidence, this is a concise treat for film fans who like to look a bit further afield for their cinematic experiences.


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