LATE MARRIAGE, A SERIOCOMIC DEBUT of extravagant promise by Georgian-Israeli director Dover Kosashvili, pours new wine into an old bottle: the plight of the second-generation immigrant, struggling to mediate the constraints of tradition with the seductive pleasures of modernity. At 31, Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi), a doctoral student in philosophy at Tel Aviv University, is so far behind schedule in the marriage stakes that his exasperated Georgian clan has taken to hurling eligible young women at him, while trying to pry him loose from his lover, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), a leggy Moroccan beauty with abundant black hair and alabaster skin, a single parent three years his senior.
This is ordinary enough material, if a little dated in its premise of the divorcée as damaged goods. Indeed, Kosashvili shows us with a hilariously straight face (nothing so dull as respect, or so cheap as mere malice, clouds his fiercely candid love for his tribe) just how dated this Georgian family is, at least from the point of view of its offspring. Egged on by Zaza's superstitious aunt, his mother (played by the director's own ample mom, Lili) hides a baby's dried foreskin under his intended's bed to bring luck to the union. Still, at the outset all signs point to an outcome familiar to a Hollywood-schooled audience. Zaza will embrace his romantic ideal -- he himself insists to the hundredth sullen young prospective bride his uncle and aunt have foisted on him that his goal is to find "a woman so perfect for me I'd go insane" -- while gently assuring his parents that although he's no longer of them, he remains with them.
LATE MARRIAGE IS ONLY INCIDENTALLY A film about the clash between love and tradition. Kosashvili has something more existential on his mind, about the propaganda we all spin for ourselves in order to make over an intractable world in the image of our own desires. At first blush, Zaza -- who's handsome in a sleepy, loutish way that ought to spell bad catch to any discerning woman -- seems a thin reed, bending this way and that before the urging of his parents to settle down with a Georgian virgin and give them a grandson, and before Judith's pressure for a commitment. Zaza is surrounded by superstition, and not just his family's. In an effort to secure Zaza's undying love, Judith sets fire to a handkerchief stained with the semen of the previous night's sex. For his part, Zaza, though stubbornly clinging to the fantasy that love will make a man of him, uses his apparent passivity to engineer a turning point in his relationship with Judith -- one which, the director implies, reveals romantic love to be its own form of superstition, at once as indispensable and unworkable as the vaunted certainties of custom and habit.
For a domestic caper, Late Marriage ambles along with a serene lack of hurry. In almost every scene, people are talking or yelling at each other in cramped rooms. There's no shtick, and none of the showoff camera angles that bedevil the work of too many post-Tarantino novice filmmakers. Even the movie's set piece -- a 12-minute scene as casually explicit as it is thoroughly quotidian -- of Zaza and Judith making love, is handled with a goofy off-handedness, almost an inadvertency, that belies its critical significance in the movie. This is what everyday sex is like, if we're lucky -- ardent, awkward, ribald, silly, and charged as much by abrasively affectionate chitchat as it is by carnality. And with it all, a kind of loneliness for both partners in the knowledge that what binds them together -- love, sex, and a subtle avoidance of taking care of life's business -- may yet derail them.
Late Marriage may be Zaza's story, but there's an expansive egalitarianism in the way Kosashvili keeps shifting emotional weight from the beleaguered hero, to his implacably protective mother, to his crass and rigid father, to Judith, who displays reserves of strength and ruined dignity of which neither she nor the audience could have dreamed. By the end of the movie, everyone, in his or her way, has reverted to type, and everyone is counting the costs. "Good luck, suckers!" mutters Zaza, closeted in a bathroom on his wedding day -- and goes forth to instruct the band to "play something bittersweet."
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KOSASHVILI | Produced by MAREK ROSENBAUM and EDGAR TENENBAUM | Released by Magnolia Pictures At Regent Showcase, Laemmle Town Center 5 and Laemmle Playhouse 7