Like a specter, the Holocaust eerily looms over The Matchmaker, always felt but rarely mentioned. People’s facial scars, physical deformities, and arm tattoos are the only concrete proof that this horrific chapter in our human history even occurred. No matter their mental or physical condition, most of the diverse Israeli characters in Avi Nesher’s drama refer to Germany as “there,” a purposefully vague descriptor that points to their belief that the Holocaust is better left forgotten. In turn, the act of collective denial allows trauma to trickle down from one generation to the next, unabated and undefined.
The Matchmaker relies on coming-of-age story tropes to engage this type of ignorance regarding past events. Primarily set in Haifa, Israel in 1968, the film charts an eventful summer in the life of 16-year-old Arik Burstein (Tuval Shafir), a quiet teen of Romanian descent whose world is turned on its head when he takes a job spying on potential customers for local matchmaker Yankele Bride (Adir Miller). Instead of going to the beach with friends, or courting the foul-mouthed free-love vixen Tamara (Neta Porat), Arik spends his summer days and nights immersed in the seedy Low Rent District. Here, Yankale introduces Arik to an intoxicating society of fringe characters and places that includes a dwarf-run movie theater, streets filled with prostitutes, and a gambling den hosted by a beauty named Clara (Maya Dagan).
Essentially a smuggler who uses the matchmaking business as cover, Yankale is a quiet yet riveting grifter. Despite his corrupt dealings, there’s a sense that the man genuinely takes pleasure in connecting lost souls, forlorn people he often refers to as “peculiar.” But that doesn’t mean Yankale is a pureblooded romantic. When a local librarian named Meir (Dror Keren) asks him about true love, Yankale’s response perfectly encapsulates his memorable combination of wit, pragmatism, and manipulation: “Love at first sight is divorce at second sight.”
The Matchmaker is serviceable as a breezy genre effort, lovingly seeped in the kind of earnestness and period-piece detail found in something like Stand By Me. The lengthy process by which Arik tries to balance his admiration for Yankale and his growing suspicion of the man’s immoral business practices creates an interesting emotional dichotomy. But while depth of character is its greatest strength, the film ultimately fails to treat history as anything but a string of melodramatic reference points for moody characters haplessly trying to find love. Pertinent issues like social upheaval and gender roles are mostly ignored in favor of familiar themes like revenge and jealousy. With so much of the film’s subtext devoted to the Holocaust, it’s off-putting that Vasher refuses to consider parallels between his characters’ traumatic past and the radical ideologies changing the world around them. If Arik and Yankale’s relationship represents a fascinating overlap between traumatic historical and personal narratives, The Matchmaker treats this complex pairing as simply a hazy window to yet another story of unrequited love.