A mother dies, taking family secrets to the grave, and her children set out to uncover them. That’s the gist of Shemi Zarhin’s “The Kind Words,” which was nominated for Israel’s best film at the 2015 Ophir Awards.
The three siblings, whose own conflicts pervade the story, go on a trip from Israel to France, hoping to answer nagging questions about their origins and identities and ultimately about themselves. The woman of the trio, Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen), takes center stage as an agitated restaurateur in a shaky marriage, desperate for children but prone to miscarriages. Her younger brother, Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon), is gay, and the eldest sibling, Natanel (Roy Assaf), is stubbornly Orthodox and homophobic.
Much anger is directed toward their father (Sasson Gabai), who had the temerity to abandon his wife after falling for a younger woman. He shows up in France too, hot on the heels of his offspring, wanting, for his own reasons, to influence their quest. There is evidence to suggest he’s not even their real dad, and they discover the title may well belong to an Arab in Marseille with whom their mother had a fling long ago.
The mystery deepens, and attitudes adjust accordingly. Director Zarhin follows the action at a safe distance and lets the characters evolve. A clever trick is having the ghost of the mother appear to Dorona, dropping a few hints about her past while revealing little and essentially repeating her daughter’s questions instead of answering them. Zissman-Cohen gives Dorona a steady intensity and determination lacking in some of the other actors. Also notable is Florence Bloch as Aunt Rosa, the mother’s sister, who knows more than she’s telling and makes the most of the few scenes in which she appears.