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'Yana's Friends'

Israeli romantic comedy is set during Gulf War

Friday, April 19, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

In "Yana's Friends' " most memorable sex scene, the lovers are nude (which we might expect) except for gas masks (which we would not). Nor would we expect gas-mask lovemaking to be particularly erotic or amusing -- but it's both.

'Yana's Friends'

RATING: R for sexual themes and brief nudity

STARRING: Evelyn Kaplun, Nir Levy

DIRECTOR: Arik Kaplun



So is the film overall, this bittersweet romantic comedy about the triumphs and travails of Russian immigrants to Israel. Beautiful young Yana (Evelyn Kaplun), three months pregnant, is newly arrived in Tel Aviv without money, friends or a working knowledge of Hebrew -- just a louse of a husband, who deposits her in a down-at-the-heel apartment building and then immediately abandons her.

Oy, what an apartment. She'll be sharing it with Eli (Nir Levy), a charming rogue who shoots wedding and bris videos for a living, plus porn on the side. Across the hall, Alik (Vladimir Friedman) and Mila (Lena Sachanova) bicker about what to do with a paralytic grandfather, who is parked on the sidewalk in his Soviet war uniform, competing for spare change with the accordion player downstairs. Landlady Rosa (Dalia Friedland) hates all of them -- until Grampa brings her and her secret past to life.

It's a zany assortment of "You Can't Take It With You"-type characters with intersecting dilemmas and solutions. Backdrop is the 1991 Gulf War: Yana and Eli are pushed into close contact by the threat of poison-gas Scud attacks. They have to stay in his bedroom until the all-clear message issues from the TV ("You may leave your sealed rooms, and we return to the game in progress").

Bush pere's war now seems nostalgically elective compared with that of Bush fils, and Yana and Eli seem baffled to hear George Senior, on the news, call it "a victory for all mankind" -- all mankind except for the 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed, of course.

But never mind. There is nothing political about Yana or "Yana's Friends," co-written by director Arik Kaplun and Semyon Vinokur. Its screenplay is a thing of humanist beauty, warmly delineating and seducing us into caring about these struggling schlemiels from the get-go. They and their black comedy remind me of Milos Forman's "Taking Off."

Evelyn Kaplun in the title role is achingly real, and Nir Levy excellent as the nicest of all nice guys. Friedland steals the show (and stole multiple Israeli awards) in her role of the testy landlady, while Avi Binyamini scores it with fine klezmer-like music throughout.

Of all the ethnic groups who make up Israel, none is richer than the Russians. At heart, "Yana" is more Russian than Jewish. That combination, as anyone who travels Murray Avenue knows, is delicious. The symmetry of the script is a little too perfect, and its depiction of Israeli society is ultimately more ideal than real -- but all the lovelier for being so.

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