This is my July 2002 review of Yana’s Friends, a movie that might strike you as pertinent and appropriate for our anxious age of shelter-in-place.
Here’s the pitch: Russian émigrés endure romantic and financial upheavals after arriving in Israel just before the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Sounds like a scenario for heavy drama, right? Guess again.
Writer-director Arik Kaplun plays the cultural and emotional clashes mostly for laughs in Yana's Friends, an engaging romantic comedy that earned nearly all of the glittering prizes at the 1999 Israeli Academy Awards.
It has taken more than two years for this free-spirited and life-affirming film to gain wide exposure on the U.S. art-house circuit, which says a lot -- none of it good -- about the bottom-line mentality that prevails even among supposedly “independent” distributors. In one key respect, however, the timing of the delayed release is fortuitous: After 9/11, perhaps American moviegoers will be all the more receptive to this intelligently heartfelt celebration of love and resilience in the shadow of war and catastrophe.
Lovely young Yana -- winningly played by Evelyne Kaplun, the director’s real-life wife – arrives in Tel Aviv to start a new life with Fima (Israel Damidov), her wheeler-dealer husband. Unfortunately, Fima soon decides to wheel and deal his way back to Russia. Yana is left to fend for herself, penniless and pregnant, while continuing to share an apartment with Eli (Nir Levi), a womanizing would-be filmmaker who supports himself as a wedding videographer.
Predictably, one thing leads to another, and the roommates fall in love. Unpredictably, the lovers and their neighbors manage to survive and thrive while only slightly inconvenienced by the demands of life during a state of war. Air-raid sirens wail, designated rooms are meticulously sealed – to provide safe havens from poison-gas attacks – and everyone wonders if the next sound they hear will be a Scud missile fired from Iraq. Even so, life goes on.
Another Russian émigré, a hotheaded hustler named Alik (Vladimir Friedman), stumbles into a profitable scam that requires the exploitation of his seemingly senile father-in-law (Moscu Alcalay). An accordion-playing street musician (Shmil Ben-Ari) tries to maintain his prime location on a well-traveled thoroughfare. And Rosa (Dalia Friedland), the cranky landlady of the apartment building where most of the main characters live, enjoys a sentimental reunion that proves it's never too late for happily-ever-aftering.
Yana's Friends isn't a black comedy, strictly speaking. But it somehow manages to find a surprising amount of humor in deadly serious and even potentially tragic situations. Typical of the movie's cheeky impudence is a scene in which Yana and Eli, brought together in a sealed room during an air raid, impulsively make love while still wearing their gas masks.
Hey, it's like I said: Life goes on. So does love.