Nina’s Tragedies (2005): Israeli Savi Gabizon’s Serio-Comic Look at Coming of Age

Winner of 11 Israeli Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay) as well as Best Film and Screenplay awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival, writer-director Savi Gabizon’s Nina’s Tragedies is one of the best Israeli films of the past decade. Offering a serio-comic look at an Israeli teenager’s coming-of-age, while centering on his attraction to his beautiful but emotionally fragile Aunt Nina, the film is an instant classic of the growing pains genre.

Thematically, Nina’s Tragedies deals with all the issues that matter: Birth and death, life and love, marriage and divorce, infatuation and passion, joy and heartbreak. The film constructs a topsy-turvy world that’s at once real and surreal, grave and light, serious and comic. In other words, Nina’s Tragedies, is strikingly multi-layered and multi-nuanced.

Nina’s Tragedies takes place over an intensely emotional six months in the life of 14 year-old Nadav (Aviv Elkabets. The film unfolds through a series of funny and touching journal entries, in which Nadav reminisces about a turbulent period in his family’s history, from his high-strung Uncle Haimon’s (Yoram Hattav) untimely death to the passing of his estranged, deeply religious father, Amnon (Shmil Ben-Ari).

After Haimon is killed in a terrorist attack, Nadav is asked by his wild, recently divorced mother Alona (Anat Waxman), to move in with her sister, Nina (Ayelet July Zurer), to provide comfort while Nina mourns the death of her new husband, Haimon. Nadav is too happy to comply, since he’s already infatuated with his stunning aunt, with whom he shares a special friendship–and a secret crush.

But as Nina gets over her loss and finds solace with a handsome but eccentric photographer named Avinoam (Alon Aboutboul), Nadav feels betrayed. He must find a way to reconcile his hormonally charged emotions. At the same time, his best friend Menahem (Dov Navon), a kind of grown-up version of Nadav, has found love with a sultry Russian immigrant named Galina (Jenya Dodina). As a result, Nadav is left alone to pursue the peeping tom exploits he had once shared with the healthily sex-obsessed Menahem.

As is always the case in the coming-of-age genre, the sensitive Nadav eventually finds his way. He’s forced to mature quickly and irrevocably, realizing that the adults around him are disappointingly fallible and have go through their own growing pains. By turns profound and whimsical, sexy and surprising, Nina’s Tragedies is ultimately about unconditional acceptance of self and others–and the power of love to heal any kind of wound.

As writer and director, Gabison balanced admirably the film’s shifting tones, presenting life the way it really is, both tragic and comic. Supported by his carefully calibrated script, he relies on the film’s soundtrack (composed by Asaf Amdurski) to strike the right emotional chords, not always the most expected ones. All the music in the movie is sad, notes Gabizon, even during the lighter scenes. For me, that helped make the comic moments feel more ambivalent, less clich

Gabizon takes the same dual approach to the film’s lighting and color palette. Nina’s Tragedies is shot and lit as a drama, even in the comedic moments, in order to mix the emotions of joy and sadness, reflecting the notion that nothing in life is ever just one thing or another.

The film’s dual nature is evident in its offbeat script construction, moving back and forth in time, with occasional segues into new characters, subplots, or set pieces. Gabizon found the screenplay, despite its tricky structure, very easy to write. Voice-over narrations help finesse the time element.

The movie wasn’t just about a teenager’s coming-of-age. Originally, Gabizon’s heroes were two perverts in the big city, one a Peeping Tom, the other a nudist. The screenplay evolved from that premise, still retaining elements of voyeurism, expressed through Nadav’s fascination with spying on his beautiful Aunt Nina as well as on his sexually active mother. Stylistically, much of the film is shot through windows, frames, doorways, and there are also various POVs that reflect Nadav’s and the other characters.

As a writer, Gabizon says he has two sides, or two characters, the voyeur and the nudist. The nudist appreciates the spontaneous, the daring, the original, while the voyeur is more concerned with knowledge, discretion, and objectivity. The particular relationship between these two aspects account for the kind of writer Gabison is–and for the unique ambience of his film.

The film is set in Israel’s contemporary and turbulent context, though Gabizon takes a decidedly apolitical approach to the story of Nina’s Tragedies. Aside from a single reference of terrorism (resulting in the death of Nina’s husband Haimon), the movie makes little or no reference to world events.

As such, the film differs sharply from Israeli films of the 1970s and 1980s, which were more explicitly political. In fact, Israeli filmmakers were the first to portray the political state of mind, way before the national media began to deal with it. However, at present, with the topic’s been covered so extensively, there’s not much new to add to what’s already been said. In a sense, it has freed up Israeli filmmakers to deal with human stories that are not directly related to war and terrorism.

Films with an overt political point of view or political message often require a black-and-white approach to the issues, resulting in the lack of nuance, ambiguity, and complexity. There’s nuance to spare throughout Nina’s Tragedies, whether dealing with Nadav’s wistful relationship with his lovely aunt, the anger and confusion he feels toward his self-absorbed parents, or the coincidence and serendipity that swirl and define his everyday life.

Deep and serious moments are punctuated by scenes of high comedy and wild spontaneity. Hence, there are scenes, in which Hassidic Jews dance in the streets with businessmen, Azerbaijani immigrants who study sleep disorders, a strange man who wanders naked in public, and an African mosquito bite that threatens to overtake a stern schoolteacher’s face. The entire film brims with fresh, spontaneous, and bizarre moments.

Dancing Hassidic Jews is a not a rare sight in Israel, and in the film it is used as cause for real celebration, an occasion to express spontaneous happiness in the midst of chaos. Similarly, the scenes of Alex jogging naked through the city streets ring true and have the flavor of Candid Camera.

As helmer, Gabison gets an excellent performance from the young Aviv Elkabeth, who had not acted before. Aviv comes across as a smart and a bit precautious adolescent, who may be too alert and sensitive to his surroundings for the pivotal and demanding role of Nina, Gabizon chose Ayelet Zurer, an attractive and talented actress. Vet actress Anat Waxman plays Nadav’s creative, free-spirited mother, a role that Gabizon wrote specifically for her.

Though Nina’s Tragedies is a personal film it is not autobiographical or inspired by anyone’s true-life story. However, Gabizon did borrow from a very Israeli tradition, one that has affected many children, as a way to conclude the story. In many religious communities, especially in Jerusalem, kids don’t go to their father’s funerals for fear that all the sperm cells the man ever spilled will return that day to condemn then. Unaware of this custom, Nadav attends his father’s funeral, only to read about it in a goodbye note his father leaves him. He tells Nadav not to worry about any angry sperm that might show up, because he knows the boy can drive them to hell. That’s how much he believes in his son. It is a wonderful way to end the movie, a fresh, unconventional way for a father to declare his love for his child, without becoming too clichor sentimental.

Nina’s Tragedies is the third feature of writer-director-producer Gabizon, who also teaches filmmaking at Tel Aviv University. Gabizon previously directed the Israeli comedy Shuroo (The Lookout), a box office hit and winner of the Best Film prizes at the Jerusalem Festival and the recipient of seven Israeli Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. Gabizon’s second film, the comedy-drama Lovesick on Nana Street, was also a hit with Israeli audiences and won Best Film and Screenplay at the Jerusalem Festival, and eight Israeli Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.