In Jewish tradition, newly married couples celebrate a week of meals surrounded by friends and family, often including people who weren’t invited to the wedding. These meals parallel part of the ceremony known as sheva brachot, or seven blessings, which are recited under the chuppah wedding canopy. While it can be a welcome extension of a tremendously joyous time, it may also be overwhelming to a couple eager to spend some time alone and away from big crowds, like a quiet and relaxing honeymoon. Seven Blessings is a deeply engrossing look at the complicated dynamics of one family in the week following a wedding that makes a strong argument against planning too much family time without a much-needed break.
Seven Blessings opens with the marriage of Marie (Reymonde Amsallem) and Dan (Eran Mor). Dan’s parents have arrived from France and will remain to attend the sheva brachot, which are to be hosted by a different member of Marie’s family each night. As the large group reconvenes again and again, the distance Marie has kept from her siblings and her mother becomes apparent. Due to her being given by her mother Hana (Tikva Dayan) to be raised by her aunt Grazia (Rivka Bahar), who was not able to have children, Marie and her adult siblings have radically different and contradictory interpretations of their childhoods and what each did and didn’t have.
Amsallem and Eleanor Sela, who portrays Marie’s sister Irit, wrote the script together, with inspiration taken from their own Moroccan-Israeli families. Each of the characters has something that strongly defines them and sets them apart from the rest of the clan. For Marie, it’s that she left and lives in France after growing up in another household. Irit can’t stand her taxi driver husband Ovad (Yoav Levi). Doris (Hila Di Castro) is divorced. Sylvie (Yael Levental) is exploring surrogacy to have her second child. Simon (Daniel Sabag) is an alcoholic. David (Yogev Keinan) is much more religious than the rest of his family. Combining all those elements even just for one night risks complete chaos, and it’s a marvel that they even make it through a few meals without ending up at each other’s throats.
Though they’re seen only briefly at the wedding and then as they attempt to stall before going up to the first meal, Marie and Dan’s relationship is central to some, but definitely not all, of the conflict. While Dan’s father returns home to get back to his medical practice after only a few days, his mother (Idit Teperson) stays behind and, as a therapist, has plenty to say about the problematic, codependent relationships she observes. Dan is endlessly patient, agreeing immediately to Marie’s request to stay over at Irit’s home when she begs her to do so in order to avoid her weekly sex night with Ovad, and when Marie tells Dan he is her only family, he responds jokingly, “Then who are these forty people I’ve been eating all my meals with?”
Humor is an important part of digging into this family’s trauma as they peel back the pain they’ve been masking for years. When Dan’s mother introduces herself to Sylvie, she looks down at the family tree chart that she’s brought along with her to reference every member of the family (Dan has also been quizzed in the car on the way up, and his only mistake is pronouncing Simon’s name with the wrong emphasis). The very real element of children being given up to other family members in Moroccan society, a phenomenon found within Sela’s own family, brings with it a great deal of regret, but there are also less devastating memories buried underneath that bubble to the surface in humorous and unexpected ways, like Marie vomiting at the taste of a dish with turmeric, recalling how she was once punished by her aunt Grazia and forced to drink turmeric and urine.
This highly cultural story, which won ten of the 12 prizes it was nominated for at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars, evokes a yearning for a place that its characters have long since left and can only remember in stories. The dialogue switches frequently from Hebrew to French to Arabic and then back again, with some conversations involving two people each speaking a different language. The food that is featured is even more central to the identity of this family than their religion, though that also comes into play when David insists that they don’t serve a bottle of wine that Dan’s mother has brought which isn’t kosher and when Sylvie takes an opportunity to share big news with the family before the Shabbat challah is blessed, typically a time when no one at the table is supposed to speak and will therefore be forced to listen.
Seven Blessings, from director Ayelet Menahemi, is filmed like a documentary with a tremendous helping of crosstalk, yet somehow the important pieces of dialogue are still always discernible. A cast of actors and non-actors, including Sela’s own great-uncle, who is deaf and introduces and closes the film as Marie’s Uncle Joseph, brings this rich and complex story to wondrous life. While international audiences may have a limited or nonexistent knowledge of Moroccan or Jewish culture, the inviting nature of this film and the deep, honest way in which it tackles its complexities ensures a satisfying and compelling watch for all.
Seven Blessings is currently without U.S. distribution.
Photo: Maria Brodkin