Local Call

Tonight I had the good luck of catching Arthur Joffé’s Local Call (IMDB) at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and found the film both charmingly funny and surprisingly touching. The film’s premise is a relatively simple one: Félix Mandel, a well-known astrophysicist with a wife and son receives a phone call from his father one evening, telling him to recover a black cashmere coat he’s just given to a homeless person. But what makes the phone call unusual is that Félix’s father has been dead for over two years. The coat’s significance, established in an earlier scene when a local tailor refuses to complete a requested alteration, becomes clear only at the end of the film for reasons I won’t reveal, at least above the fold. Suffice it to say that the film’s final turn addresses the divide between father and son in a very specific way.

It would have been easy for Local Call to fall into the trap of overplaying the comedic or melodramatic aspects of this kind of plot, and to Joffé’s credit, the film avoids becoming too maudlin or too shallow. The film’s humor erives primaily from the complicated interactions between Félix and his dead father, as is turns out that it costs a lot of money to talk to someone in the afterlife (plus his dad always calls collect). Eventually, because his phone bills are so exorbitant, Félix’s wife leaves him, taking their son, for the banker who called attention to Félix’s debts. Félix is later evicted from his apartment, banned from hotels, and evebtually fired because of his expensive phone calls (there’s a strong echo of The Book of Job here). Gradually the generation gap between father and son is resolved, especially after Félix’s material existence continues to decline. This reconciliation is connected in a fairly specific way to Félix finally recovering the lost coat (and from here I’ll be revealing details that might qualify as “spoilers”).

The alteration that Félix’s father wanted (and that the tailor, Cohen, refused to complete) was to sew a Star of David on the lapel. This alteration is revealed very effectively late in the film when Cohen’s daughter, Yael, completes the alteration her father was unable to do. The scene is well done, with the viewer recognizing, along with Félix, what the father has requested.

I’m still absorbing this film, but as I’ve begun to write about it, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s a far more subtle and emotionally effective film than I initially realized as I was leaving the theater.

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