Current rates of divorce and single-life aside, marriage is one of the most familiar conditions of social life worldwide. So, by the time we sit down to enjoy a film or television show exhibiting marriage’s travails and, it is hoped, triumphs it is easy to shrug dismissively, even derisively, at what these screened accounts depict. There are plenty of good reasons to be dismissive.
To invoke Leo Tolstoy’s all-too-well-known Anna Karenina principle, every marriage ranging from mediocre to unhappy is mediocre, unhappy, or even outright miserable, in its own way. Happy, even ecstatic, unions not only lack the energy of conflict necessary to hold our attention but also hold the potential to pain us with their treacly contrasts. Tolstoy’s principle could just as well invoke the idea that any worthy tale of marriage needs something similar to a train-station suicide or, more gruesomely in 1987’s Fatal Attraction, a slain rabbit boiling on the stovetop.
The 2001 Israeli film Late Marriage offers nothing in the way of dead bodies or animals. It does not even focus solely on the events in the life of a married couple. Rather, it reveals the myriad ways a close-knit group of people who care passionately about the institution of marriage grapples with the high-stakes (to them, at least) consequences of their ideals.
Most of us are familiar with marriage films eager to show us a different angle on what most of us already know: the couple that sticks together to raise their children in exemplary ways, even in the middle of a civil war (William Wyler’s 1956 film Friendly Persuasion), the couple that sticks together no matter the circumstances, even mental illness (John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, 1974), or any number of films that hyperventilate seemingly endless recitations of personal grievances and resentments (Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, 1973, or Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, 2019).
Watch Late Marriage once, but with close attention, and it is easy to see how it poses questions that might be useful in formulating a successful marriage. Watch it a second time, with equally close attention, and you might find yourself moved.
Late Marriage is interested in none of that, at least not at the center of its concerns. Instead, it is more interested in the ways marriage is perceived, negotiated, and set in motion. It is one of the few films concerning marriage bold enough to suggest that our modern insistence on personal fulfillment in romance is the double-edged sword that brings two people together but can also poison them with expectations that tear romance apart. And it is one of the more honest films about marriage in its open, forthright acknowledgment that the institution—and in this film, marriage is most certainly an institution—involves far more than the wills and desires of two people.
Any one of those features makes this film, written and directed by Dover Kosashvili, one of the more unusual films about marriage qua marriage. What makes Late Marriage marvelous as well as unique is the way it explores these ideals in scenes and dialogue alternating between the passion and interplay of two people in love, and the almost scientific objectivity of a family and the religious strictures of community, in this case, the Georgian-Jewish traditions of arranged marriage in modern, contemporary Israel. Watch Late Marriage once, but with close attention, and it is easy to see how it poses questions that might be useful in formulating a successful marriage. Watch it a second time, with equally close attention, and you might find yourself moved.
When Kosashvili’s film first came to art-house and foreign cinema theaters in the United States in 2002, it arrived at a time when the national conscience was still adjusting to the realities of international terrorism having visited domestic turf during 9/11. Israel-Palestine was still in the middle of the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David Summit and the Second Intifada. Those in film marketing during those years were well within their rights to insist that what audiences wanted was belly laughs. A tense, at times wry, drama about the parents of a 31-year-old doctoral student of philosophy trying to find him a suitable Georgian-Jewish bride simply would not do. Do not be fooled one bit by the film’s voice-over trailer, which attempts to cast Late Marriage as some sort of Adam Sandler film about the comedies of awkward courtship. The late ’90s and early 2000s were littered with screen hits about the humor of emergent matrimony—The Wedding Singer (1998), Meet the Parents (2000), and Monsoon Wedding (2001) among them—with directors and producers at the ready to cash in.
Kosashvili plays nothing for deliberate laughs. As if to impart that marriage and family is serious business, his camera is steady as a signpost. The dialogue is so spare and even that it seems almost deadpan, at least to the ears of someone unfamiliar with Georgian-Hebrew dialect. Wry moments, smiles, and warm sentiments pervade the narrative arc, albeit cautiously. Kosashvili, himself of Georgian-Jewish origin, depicts marriage as an almost strategic act, with troops aligned and ready to issue commands. It is only when the film’s climactic scene arrives that we understand these dramatic choices.
The film pops right out of the gate with a scene from a marriage long-ripened into argument and bickering: an aged, plump-at-the-arms woman washes her husband’s hair as he sits idle in a sudsy bathtub. As he snipes and their arguing progresses, she later refuses to help him work around a bum shoulder in order to put on a dress shirt. The occasion for their outing is a meeting with the parents of Zaza, also called “Dooby,” who everyone admits is too old to still be single.
Wry moments, smiles, and warm sentiments pervade the narrative arc, albeit cautiously. Kosashvili, himself of Georgian-Jewish origin, depicts marriage as an almost strategic act, with troops aligned and ready to issue commands. It is only when the film’s climactic scene arrives that we understand these dramatic choices.
Barely ten minutes in, Kosashvili has already laid down a rough sketch. Marriage, such as it is here, is never the smooth path of love. It is the security—maybe even freedom? —of knowing two people can bicker to their hearts’ content, and your spouse will still wash your hair, even if she later refuses to help you put on a shirt. These, it turns out, are the same sort of people convening to pair a consensual arranged marriage for two young charges in their community, Zaza and Llana.
Zaza, as we learn about one-third of the way into the film, already has his heart sold to one woman, Judith. Three years his senior, and mother to a child from her first marriage, she is a sort of bomb Zaza’s family works to defuse before his life travels any further down the track of what they see as nothing but a languorous, semi-committed life of weekend trysts.
“Admit that your life’s a mess,” Zaza’s mother tells him in a stern voice, as they wait for the apartment door of Llana’s family to open.
“I told you; let me be. I do fine on my own,” Zaza answers.
The fact that he is already in tow to his parents and about to meet a prospective bride, though, is a strong hint of who has control of the situation. The pull of tradition here is strong, even if the setting is thoroughly modern, and Zaza will at least indulge his parents as a dutiful son who will go through the motions. Yasha, Zaza’s father, knows that better than anyone as he vaunts his personal philosophy of love across the living-room coffee table of his guests, where everyone has gathered to witness the first meeting between Zaza and Llana:
“The heart can become so light that it rises higher, toward the head. Too much importance is given to the heart and love, to the point where the heart becomes heavy and sinks. What is everlasting love? The couple splits without it. The slightest problem, and they divorce.”
Director Kosashvili bookends that thought not too soon afterward, when Zaza and Llana meet for the first time in her bedroom. A mere 17 years old to Zaza’s 31, Llana stays reclined across her bed mattress, staring down her potential beau like a Cleopatra in training. Zaza meets her gaze with equally resolute eyes, and a question that sounds as if he has studied it for years beforehand:
Zaza: If suddenly a monster came out of the ocean and said, “I am God,” would you believe it?
Llana: It depends on how much he paid me.
Zaza: Everyone has his own God. Objective proof is hard to find.
Llana: Who is your God?
Zaza: If that monster was able to convince my mother that love exists, I’d believe in him.
Llana: You’re on the wrong track, waiting for that miracle.
Zaza: Life is tough.
When the two embrace, and partake in a kiss that at first seems passionate but soon turns tepid, it is clear their actions are born out of equal parts curiosity—“kicking the wheels,” so to speak—and duty. One reason it turns tepid is that Zaza eventually detects that Llana’s kid sister has been hiding underneath the bed during their whole interview.
Intruders, nosy parents with big plans for their son, skeptical parents of the potential bride who wonder why a grown man of 31 would wait years to tie the knot; busy-bodies of every sort abound, but not before Zaza can drive his way to Judith’s apartment. That his mother forgot her purse and house keys in his car’s glove compartment before he makes his journey is just another snag that pulls him back into the family orbit. It is also another opportunity for the film to show us what marriage is about. Contrary to popular belief, love does not mean “never having to say you’re sorry.” True love—the love we maintain through everything mundane, the disappointments, the struggles, and frustrations—is working with your spouse to make alternate arrangements when you do not have the key to your home. That becomes Yasha’s task at hand as he banters with his wife, snipes at a beggar near the stairwell, but eventually finds lodgings with relatives until his son Zaza comes back with the car. (Note: For those of us old enough to remember, 2001 predated the era of cell-phone proliferation.)
Unfortunately for Zaza, his mother’s forgotten keys are also the device upon which his parents learn of his relationship with Judith. He gets his night with Judith, in one of the most natural and committed of extended sex scenes in all film, but is forced to pay for it in one of the cruelest scenes in all film about relations between parents and children. The fury and venom with which Zaza’s parents and extended family invade Judith’s home to insult her in front of her child, and berate their own son, is shocking, verging on obscene.
When Kosashvili’s film first came to art-house and foreign cinema theaters in the United States in 2002, it arrived at a time when the national conscience was still adjusting to the realities of international terrorism having visited domestic turf during 9/11. Israel-Palestine was still in the middle of the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David Summit and the Second Intifada. Those in film marketing during those years were well within their rights to insist that what audiences wanted was belly laughs.
“I don’t care if she [Judith] is made of gold! No divorce under my roof!” Zaza’s mother pronounces before she, Yasha, and the tribe of his family barge into Judith’s apartment, with Zaza rough-housing with her young daughter.
The resolute force with which Zaza’s parents make their demands is undiminished even after he has seemingly relented. “I’ll kill her [Judith] first. She’ll never be your wife. I’ll let no one take advantage of my son.”
This, however, is the scaffold director Kosashvili uses to build his thesis: Let us not kid ourselves about what marriage is for, or whom it serves. Love is never built on a foundation of only two people, but also on the foundation of your family, your culture, and society. And even if you end up disappointing everyone outside your personal view of what marriage is for, and whom it serves, chances are good you can still end up disappointing yourself, and also your spouse.
Could it be, perhaps, that the trick of a good marriage is holding these two opposing ideas in mind before our vows are recited? Marriage must of course hold a modicum of love and affection, but beyond the commitment two people make to one another who would not want the fortifying blessing of those who smile on your choice of spouse?
Moderns scoff at the very idea of any sort of arranged marriage, but we tend to forget that they were the norm not so long ago. According to one 2012 study, they still represent 53 percent of marriages worldwide. After accounting for the fact that a large portion of these unions are compelled by force, and even cruelly enforced on child brides, what is remarkable about these marriages is their low level of divorce, hovering somewhere near 7 percent.
Late Marriage is miles from endorsing arranged marriage. At the same time, it is a glaring reminder that—whether we like it or not, whether we remember it or not—marriage is and will remain a social contract.
Once, while a young traveler in England during my twenties, I eavesdropped on a conversation between an upper-class businessman, a working-class blonde, and a Pakistani professor of engineering. Making our way south to London from Manchester by train, all three warmed to one another sufficiently to share the difficulties of their marriages (in the case of the businessman and the professor) and relationships. The Pakistani professor listened in earnest fascination to the vagaries and trials of love suffered and withstood by his traveling companions. Only then did he show his hand.
“Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” he said. “I am even a bit jealous of you both, as I cannot really indulge in any such complaints where my marriage is concerned. There is no time or place for any of that. I have to make it work. My wife has to make it work. There is no other way.”
Both the businessman and the working-class blonde smiled knowingly, but what was most memorable was how everyone seemed to leave the interaction a little bit wiser than before.
Late Marriage is miles from endorsing arranged marriage. At the same time, it is a glaring reminder that—whether we like it or not, whether we remember it or not—marriage is and will remain a social contract. Our fellow citizens, our friends, and even our families may be kept at a heavily guarded distance from our personal affairs. How far away is, and always should be, a matter of personal choice. But only a fool pretends that third parties will never have their say, especially when marriages turn sour and rot. The world is full of divorced people shocked and outraged that any family court judge has the power to decide what constitutes a fair and equitable outcome regarding alimony and child custody. The world makes thousands of these outraged people daily. How crazy it is to leave such decisions to an outright stranger, but how more so than to listen to our parents before we marry?
In the course of Late Marriage’s long, steamy sex scene between Zaza and Judith, the couple hover momentarily between the ideal of their love, and the larger world outside the bedroom. With Judith standing naked before him, Zaza asks that she look at her own breasts. Puzzled, Judith wants to know what her lover is driving at. Zaza’s explanation amounts to a sly wish to bypass the inescapable laws of the physical world.
Zaza: Your breasts are attracted down. . . . We have explained the force exerted by the Earth. This phenomenon is called gravity. Gravity is responsible for the attraction of all objects. Among them your breasts. Science, like witchcraft, is based on assumptions and beliefs.
Judith: So I can believe that witchcraft exists. Beliefs are just as worthy as science?
Zaza: Yes, my beautiful believer!
It is no spoiler to say that Zaza and Judith cannot find that elusive formula of science and witchcraft, or magic, in love. But for those scorching, exuberant moments in the bedroom, they at least understand that success in love is part science, part magic. It is the correct proportion that Late Marriage asks that we consider, study, and search for.
As for marriage itself, even Zaza’s parents begin to voice personal doubts between themselves before their son reaches the wedding canopy. They come to doubt not just their cruelty toward Judith and Zaza, but also the forces behind their own marriage years ago. But since when, Kosashvili seems to ask, is any marriage free of doubt?
With a hall full of guests waiting outside, with his family and parents waiting in the wing to watch him dance and celebrate what should be the happiest day of his life, Zaza—more than half drunk and slapping his face repeatedly as if to wake himself up—utters at half-volume what could be the unspoken manifesto for newlyweds everywhere, or even for all time.
“Good luck, suckers!”