‘Harmonia’: A Fine, Reimagined Genesis of Jewish-Arabic Convergence Opens JFilm Festival

‘Harmonia’: A Fine, Reimagined Genesis of Jewish-Arabic Convergence Opens JFilm Festival

Originally featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 19, 2017

The JFilm Festival is now in its 24th annual season of presenting international movies that celebrate Jewish culture and tolerance worldwide. But “Harmonia,” the film that opens the 11-day festival Thursday night at the Manor in Squirrel Hill, is a celebratory event in itself.

You can’t go much further or deeper than the Book of Genesis, from which “Harmonia” takes its powerful material: a love triangle, tangled up in the roots of ancient conflict between two peoples living in contemporary Jerusalem, seeking some kind of elusive harmonic convergence — literal and figurative.

Elegant Sarah (Tali Sharon), a harpist in the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra, is married to Abraham (Alon Aboutboul), its charismatic conductor. They are childless. Taciturn Hagar (Yana Yossef), a young French hornist from East Jerusalem, auditions for a position with the orchestra. “She plays the horn like a violin,” says Abraham — not loudly or obediently enough for his taste. But she’s good, and he hires her anyway.

In rehearsing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” he tells Hagar she must have four eyes: one for the music, one for the first chair of her section, and two for him — the conductor. Bespectacled Hagar has all four — plus a strong and growing friendship with his wife. Hagar offers to have a baby for them. After which, she departs.

Twelve years later, we find young Ben as a phenomenal but wildly uncontrollable pianist, resisting all attempts to impose discipline, even as Sarah in her 40s gets suddenly pregnant and gives birth to Isaac — and to a relationship fraught with envy and rejection.

“Barren as the womb of Sarah” was one of my mother’s favorite semi-ironic expressions. To recap its significance and Genesis 16-22 — Sarah advises Abraham to lie with her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and beget a child by her. They do so, but resulting son Ishmael is “a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” When God later reappears to Abraham and promises to give him a new son, Abe laughs: He’s 99, Sarah is 90! Better believe it, says God. Sarah will bear him Isaac, with whose descendants God will make His covenant. As for Ishmael: “I will make him fruitful. He shall beget 12 princes, and I will make him a great nation.” They will head the Jewish and Muslim people respectively.

Director-writer Ori Sivan’s reimagining of a tale of two mothers and half-brothers challenges yet somehow reaffirms the original, with a glorious musical backdrop: Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and, above all, the François Boieldieu harp concerto — greatest ever written! — which is worth the price of admission itself.

(Jewish and gentile musicians alike will savor Abraham’s insights: Every piece, he says, is a struggle “between restraint and outburst, order and chaos. When you play everything right, nothing happens. You need to drown in the piece, fall down a hole with it, until you can’t breathe.”)

Yaron Scharf’s geometric cinematography includes terrific use of a triangular staircase and the heroines’ lying on two hexagonal cushions. His no-nonsense script, with its pithy scenes and minimal dialogue, eschews fades and other editing conventions in favor of “jump” edits to skip beats and advance the unpredictable story at a fast clip.

Mr. Aboutboul (“The Dark Knight Rises”) gives a commanding performance as the intimidating, Bernstein-esque maestro Abraham. Beautiful Sarah (Ms. Sharon) and Hagar (Ms. Yossef) wholly occupy their soulful, sensuous roles. Wonderful young Itai Shcherback as Ben gets better as he gets older, his nascent mustache thickening, his hilarious backstage rollerblading driving everybody crazy — most of all, his parents. Is he the Bad Seed he appears to be? Will his little bro Isaac have to be sacrificed?

The Lord, as we know, works in mysterious ways — most amazingly, in making Abraham the patriarch of all three of the world’s great monotheistic religions. If only He’d left a few instructions as to how Jews and Muslims were to get along with each other.

Not to mention with the Christians.