Under normal circumstances, adolescence is a difficult field to navigate, but for an undersized, child-like boy with dysfunctional parents, it can be a minefield of isolation. Based on the novel, “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by David Grossman, Israeli director Nir Bergman’s powerful film Intimate Grammar is the heartbreaking story of a boy stuck in an endless childhood with no obvious means of escape. First prize winner at the Jerusalem and Tokyo Film Festivals, Intimate Grammar is the follow up to Bergman’s 2002 film, Broken Wings, a critically-acclaimed effort about an Israeli family attempting to cope with the death of its patriarch.
Set in Jerusalem in the 1960s against the background of the approaching Six-Day War, Intimate Grammar opens with a black and white newsreel showing Independence Day celebrations to provide an historical context. The opening scene immediately establishes differences. Ten-year-old Aharon Klienfeld (Roee Elsberg) and his friends suspect upstairs neighbor Edna Blum (Evelyn Kaplun), of being a “spy” and raid her apartment looking for clues. One of them finds a black bra that was left out and invites Aharon to take a look but sees that he is not interested. He would rather stand and look at a replica of Picasso’s painting “Guernica.”
In the new Israel, there is little privacy. The apartments are small and Aharon has to share a bedroom with his older sister Yochi (Yael Sgerski), an overweight teen who was called a “cow” in school. Aharon is bright, but physically undeveloped for his age, a fact that he is constantly being reminded of. Self-conscious about his body, he receives only constant hectoring from his parents, Holocaust survivors who find it hard to relate to the culture in which their son is growing up. Aharon’s Polish-born father Moshe (Yehuda Almagor) is a survivor of a Soviet labor camp who tells Aharon that artists and intellectuals were the first to die in the camps, because they refused to believe it was so.
When Ms. Blum asks him to save her favorite tree, Moshe spends long hours working on the tree, much to the chagrin of his surly wife Hinda (Orly Silbersatz) who suspects that Ms. Blum has designs on him. A later escapade with Ms. Blum paying Moshe to tear down some walls in her house, only underscores her fears. Hinda is Aharon’s shrill and overbearing mother who seemingly has little patience or understanding of her children and struggles daily to deal with her elderly mother-in-law they call “Mumcha” (Rivka Gur). Hinda never reassures her son that he will eventually grow, but Moshe reminds him that another small man, Napoleon, conquered Europe.
Aharon’s respect for his father takes a hit, however, when he discovers a pack of playing cards with pictures of naked women belonging to his father, and asks Yochi if a spy could have planted them. The impact of his slow growth becomes more apparent when he notices certain changes in his friends at school, such as the growth of armpit hair, which he marks down in his notebook. Aharon’s only companion is his friend Gidon (Eden Luttenberg), but Aharon’s childish fantasies and dangerous escapades trying to emulate Harry Houdini puts his friendship at risk. During a sleepover when both boys study English, Gidon remarks that English is a hard language because of so many tenses and humorously blames the British for their legacy. Aharon tells him that he likes the English use of “present continuous” tense such as “I am jumping.”
Afterwards, Aharon begins to use the “intimate grammar” to distance himself from his feelings, acting like a passive observer living in the “present continuous,” his inner voice repeating the words, “I am running, I am jumping, I am playing, I am Aharoning.” The film moves two years ahead when Aharon is celebrating his Bar Mitzvah in his home. He is now thirteen but still small for his age. Sulking in his room because his parents did not pay for a hall, he only comes out to greet his guests at the pleading of his sister who tells him to treat it all with a laugh. His world brightens when he develops a crush on Yaeli, an attractive classmate who aspires to be a ballet dancer, but she soon gravitates towards the more mature Gidon and the three go on dates together.
As Gidon and Yaeli go away to work on a kibbutz with Israeli youth groups, Aharon stays at home watching from the sidelines with a growing feeling of self-hatred. “Having a body is itself a defect,” he says. When a doctor mistakes him for a ten-year-old, Aharon’s anxiety increases, “Maybe I’ll stay like this forever,” he muses, “with only my thoughts growing up.” Confined by systems he does not understand, his life is gradually defined as an outsider. Rejected by his friends and parents, he has no kindred spirit to relate to. As Aharon’s life begins a downward spiral, he thinks about all the people around him, “They’re starting off on their road to death, and I haven’t yet.”
Elsburg’s performance as the troubled boy is a marvel, full of subtlety, nuance, and sensitivity that never becomes cloying. Like Leolo in the film of the same name by Jean-Claude Lauzon, his is a situation made for every outsider whose environment is so devoid of the things that nurture their souls, that, to survive, they must escape into a world of dreams, surviving only by being a spectator to their own life. Increasingly drawn to poetic fantasy, Aharon begins to drift further away from reality, his agonized stream of consciousness elevating the final segment of Intimate Grammar to one of haunting and transcendent beauty.