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Closeness — A Russian-Jewish Family Drama

Kantemir Balagov’s somber Russian-language movie, Closeness, set in the North Caucasus town of Nalchik, is a tense drama with a twist.¬†Currently being screened online by the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation, it takes place in 1998, seven years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and focuses on a Jewish family suddenly facing a crisis.

Avi (Artyom Tsypin) and his wife, Adina (Olga Dragunova), are among the last Jews left in this bleak town. Avi, a car mechanic, owns a modest garage. He works with his unmarried daughter, Ilana, who’s something of a tomboy and a rebel.

“Do you want to spend your whole life fixing cars?” he pointedly asks her, implying she would be better off doing something more refined.

Ilana is quite content servicing cars, but she envies her younger brother, David (Veniamin Kats), who’s the cusp of marrying his sweetheart, Leia. At a festive meal, he announces their forthcoming marriage. Ilana, who’s impressively portrayed by Darya Zhovner,¬†is happy for him, but sad she’s still single.

A Jewish family in the Caucasus region of Russia

Ilana, to be sure, has a boyfriend, Zalim (Nazir Zhukov), who looks up to her. “You Jews are so gentle,” he says. Yet, as a Muslim, he implicitly realizes he cannot marry a Jewish woman because he would be going against the grain of his insular community. In addition, Adina opposes their relationship. “He’s not from our tribe,” she says archly.

As this tension plays out, David and Leia are kidnapped, and the abductor demands a hefty ransom. At a Jewish community gathering, funds are raised, but the amount falls short of what the kidnapper expects.

With the burden falling on Avi, he decides to sell his business to make up the difference. Ilana thinks the proposed sale price is far too low.

In the meantime, Avi and Adina dream up a scheme to save the day. If Ilana marries Rafa, a Jewish man she is not particularly fond of, his wealthy father will cover the full cost of the ransom. As far as Avi and Adina are concerned, the matter is settled. Ilana begs to differ. She embarrasses Avi and Adina when Rafa’s parents show up at their apartment to seal the deal.

Topmost on her mind is how she can win David’s freedom from captivity.

Balagov throws local attitudes toward Israel and Jews into this heady mix. He presents a clip in which a Muslim musician warbles that Jerusalem “will be ours.” And one of Zalim’s friends claims that “Jews are good to make soap from.”

Closeness, Balagov’s first feature film, is low-key yet intense. It leaves a viewer engaged in a fraught situation that could go either way.