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‘My Lovely Sister’

My Lovely Sister

Directed by Marco Carmel

Israel, 2011

Grave-digging, the risen dead, a Charon-like figure transporting the recently deceased, and some particularly gothic wallpaper all sound like elements of a horror film.

That it’s not actually Charon on the river Styx en route to Hades, but instead Ben Lulu on a bicycle traversing the streets of Tel Aviv is emblematic of the genre plays at odds with one-another in Marco Carmel’s My Lovely Sister.

Ostensibly a work of magical realism, where anything of the supernatural blends seamlessly with the real world, making the two separable only by our understanding of the difference and not any visual representation, My Lovely Sister is domestic drama first, ghostly narrative second, and coming-of-age comedy third.

In true melodramatic fashion, the plot is a convoluted tangle of names, motivations and connectedness. Rahma (Evelin Hagoel) and Robert (Moshe Ivgy) are unhappily married. The source of their frustration is Rahma’s sister, Mary (Reymonde Amsallem), who has married Ali (Norman Issa), an Arab, and who Rahma suspects of having previously had an affair with Robert. Rahma and Robert’s son Kobi (Itay Turgeman) sells pornography on the streets and obsesses over a local girl. When Mary dies unexpectedly (though rather expectedly for any aware viewer), the plot takes its turn towards the supernatural.

My Lovely Sister is certainly a film that wants to be subtle, and Carmel, who also wrote the script, frequently incorporates exposition in understated ways. The opening five minutes, which operate on a mostly visual level, set up various conflicts at work through a smartly crafted montage, a few key reaction and point of view shots, and some clever repetition.

Carmel continues this strategy for a large part of the first act, easily the strongest section of the film, and one that uses crosscuts and color schemes in a beautifully cinematic way. It’s a shame when the film segues into act two, which replaces restrained technique with lengthy dialogues and histrionic interactions.

In the end, all of these various hodge-podges – multiple genres, perspectives, and subplots – are the weakness in a film that concludes its strongest narrative thread 15 minutes shy of the closing credits. There’s an oversimplification of problems here.

Rahma’s character arc is entirely reliant on her interactions with Mary beyond the grave – readable perhaps as a substitute for her own inner monologue. That Rahma finds peace is conceivably a change of her own volition, and her subsequent actions – painting over a personified wall in her house, burying Mary on the family plot – signal a return to reality. Yet there’s no real inciting incident to spark said change and the story can be boiled down to one woman – Rahma – talking herself into a radical transformation. For all of the problems swirling around, this dramatically cheapens the resolution.

Though the final 15 minutes of My Lovely Sister lack much drama, they do mark a return to a kind of cinematic flair. Carmel feels most at home at the helm of these montages, and despite any real narrative weight, his conclusion is still visually satisfying, perfectly paced, and affectionately intended.

– Neal Dhand