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Women and Family in Three Foreign Films (on Netflix): My Happy Family, Graduation, and The Women's Balcony

Walter Moss: The three foreign films reviewed here, set in three different countries, in contemporary times, also demonstrate the universal nature of gender and family problems.
Ia Shugliashvili appears in My Happy Family

Ia Shugliashvili appears in My Happy Family

[/dc]T[/dc]he film My Happy Family (2017) reminds one of the first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The film title is meant ironically, and the unhappiness in the family of the main character, Manana (in her early fifties), revolves around her dissatisfactions and moving out of her family apartment into one of her own. (See here for a good Sundance interview with the two directors of the film.)

What makes the film memorable is the universality of its theme—a dissatisfied woman and an unhappy family—but set in a very particular setting, the modern day city of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where Joseph Stalin once attended an Orthodox seminary.

The Georgian tone of the film is palpable throughout. Manana teaches literature and tells her students about the earliest extant piece of Georgian literature, the fifth century Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik. Paralleling her own story, it is a family drama, but she tells her students it goes beyond such drama because it is based on religious conflict—the queen’s husband gives up his Christianity and converts to Zoroastrianism, and he martyrs her for refusing to follow his example.

Other Georgian hues that color this drama are the group singing of Georgian songs on several occasions, Tbilisi’s outdoor markets, and the extended-family apartment sharing—including Manana’s mother, father, husband, two children, a daughter and son, both in their early twenties (and at times their spouses)—from which Manana flees. On a few occasions, Manana’s brother and other relatives visit the family apartment, and are more than willing to give her advice. Her father tells the family “I survived the Communists. . . . I have survived so many shitty governments. Now I have to put ups with this government.” (Until 1991 Georgia was part of the USSR.)

my happy family

The Women's Balcony

And yet, the theme of an unhappy woman confronting, and sometimes leaving, her husband and family is universal. Think of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, of films such as The Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970). And in a wider sense regarding feminine dissatisfaction, think of the #MeToo Movement and the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018. In addition to Manana’s unhappiness and the family’s disarray, another universal theme is the failure of people to communicate with each other—a story stretching back at least as far as the Bible’s Tower of Babel tale. Manana never articulates to her family exactly why she is leaving them, and they are extremely puzzled as to what her motivation is.

Also universal is the effect of modern technology on present-day life. Grandmother complains that her grandson spends all his time on a computer, and as Manana is lecturing her students one of the young ladies is texting on her cell phone.

Graduation (2016) is set in another post-communist country, Romania, and depicts another unhappy family. The film’s director, Cristian Mungiu, previously directed such movies as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” and he is one of Romania’s most prestigious cinema talents. The father in Graduation is a provincial doctor named Romeo; he is often with his younger mistress; and his wife, Magda, is ailing and depressed. Their only daughter, Eliza, is the victim of an attempted rape, which leads Romeo to take steps to insure that the aftereffects of the attack do not endanger her chances of obtaining a scholarship to study in England.

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His steps include trying to use his influence and contacts to insure Eliza’s scholarship regardless of how she does on an upcoming exam. Despite Romania’s overthrowing of communism, many of the societal problems remain. In the Soviet Union, there was an old saying that “blat [pull or influence] is higher than Stalin,” and blat operated throughout the system. It helped one obtain a valued apartment, a job, entrance to a university, and much more. The communist bureaucratic system throughout eastern Europe inadvertently fostered such an approach, as it did bribes and corruption.

Graduation depicts well the family dynamics between Romeo and Magda, as well as between each of them and Eliza. It also provides a snapshot of post-communist Romania and some of the ethical and other situations facing its people.

The popular Israeli film The Women's Balcony (2016) zeroes in on not just one woman’s dissatisfaction (as in My Happy Family), but on the displeasure of a whole group of women who are members of a Jewish Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. In Orthodox services the women are divided from the men, and the balcony area where they pray collapses during a ceremony, injuring the rabbi's wife and destabilizing him.

The accident necessitates the rebuilding of the synagogue, and the Jewish men of the congregation consider themselves fortunate when a younger rabbi named David offers to help them while the old rabbi is immobilized. The only problem is that the charismatic younger rabbi interprets Judaism in a more strict and male-favoring manner than the women of the congregation are used to—he believes, for example, they should cover their hair. Claiming that insufficient funds are available, he supervises a rebuilding of the synagogue that fails to provide a women’s balcony, or indeed any other adequate space for them. They rebel against such treatment, and their husbands are caught in the middle between their wives and the young rabbi they have come to admire.

The whole drama is well acted and occurs in a colorful setting, spiced with ample humor. But it makes a serious point: dogmatism (like that of the Rabbi David) is often inhumane, leading to conflict. This theme reminded me of a similar idea preached by the Catholic Pope Francis in a 2013 sermon when he warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”

All three of the foreign films considered here reminded me of some of the words of the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. In the Prologue for the extremely popular book, The Family of Man (1955), which reproduced over 500 photographs from a Museum of Modern Art exhibit of his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen, he wrote of the universalism of family life:

Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the family of Man alive and continuing. Everywhere the sun, moon and stars—, the climates and weathers, have meanings for people. Though meanings vary, we are alike in all countries and tribes in trying to read what sky, land and sea say to us. Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun. From the tropics to arctics humanity lives with these needs so alike, so inexorably alike.

The three foreign films reviewed here, set in three different countries, in contemporary times, also demonstrate the universal nature of gender and family problems. People may speak Georgian, Romanian, Hebrew, or some other language, and they may be strongly influenced by their native culture, but they all face many similar problems. Those dealing with male-female and family issues are certainly among the most important in people’s everyday lives.

walter moss

Walter J. Moss