In the lush melodrama Three Mothers, Israeli filmmaker Dina Zvi-Riklis tests the bonds between siblings to a breathtaking degree. In fact, Three Sisters would have been a more apt title if Chekhov hadn’t gotten there first.
A carefully constructed saga of loyalty, betrayal, revenge and sublimated sorrow that spans 60 years, Three Mothers is that rare Israeli film that could be set anywhere from Brooklyn to Bristol. The political climate is rarely mentioned, while the family dynamic is universal.
Three Mothers is a beautifully mounted and acted movie that is harrowing in its emotional bluntness. Skipping back and forth between the present and the past, the film opens with the birth of triplets Rose, Yasmin and Flora six decades ago in Alexandria, Egypt. Now they share a flat in Tel Aviv in an uneasy truce that’s about to be broken.
Yasmin’s doctor informs her that she’s running out of time in her protracted wait for a kidney donor and, a bit stunned, she drops in at Rose’s daughter’s office to unburden herself of some old family history. Rucha’s job consists of videotaping the testimonies and last testaments of seniors, and editing those oral histories into keepsake DVDs. So she switches on the camera, and Yasmin opens up.
Every family has two narratives — the accepted version that’s trotted out at family gatherings and the secret past. Yasmin begins by relating the familiar, then stuns Rucha with a mysterious revelation.
The triplets were born into privilege and prestige, for their mother was a midwife whose services were valued at King Farouk’s palace. Alas, it was there that she contracted typhus, leaving her husband to raise three young girls alone.
The revolution and the end of the monarchy in Egypt compelled the family to emigrate to Israel. Father made a decent living running a spice shop, but one gets the impression that by the time they hit their teens the sisters essentially raised themselves. Rose, for example, aspired to be a singer over her father’s objections, and Flora and Yasmin dutifully covered for her late-night forays to nightclubs.
It’s a pattern that would be repeated numerous times: Rose lived the wild life and her sisters provided alibis. The time came, though, when all three were to suffer the consequences of her narcissism.
Back in the present, Rucha — who’s been trying for some time to get pregnant — is discombobulated by her aunt’s visit. She prods her mother for information, who lets it slip to Flora, who hustles over to Rucha’s office to record her own “confession” and pick up the tale where Yasmin left off.
Now the story really gets juicy, with the sisters finding husbands and settling into family life with varying levels of satisfaction. Suffice it to say that the men, for all their charm and devotion, are never able to approach the level of profound connection with their wives that the sisters share.
A construction-site accident involving the husbands of Yasmin and Flora transforms everyone’s life forever, and sets in motion a chain of events that comprise the untold family history. Ultimately, decades after the fact, it will fall to Rucha to try to heal some of the lingering damage.
The screenplay is rife with incident, yet Three Mothers largely manages to avoid turning into soap opera. Give credit to Zvi-Riklis for not ladling on a sweeping, swelling score.
There is plenty of lovely music though, notably Rose’s songs. The poetic yet pointed lyrics comment on the progression of the drama while conveying a vivid sense of Israel in the ‘60s. The gorgeous, spine-tingling number that Rose sings in Arabic to celebrate Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel is a high point.
Three Mothers is an ambitious and satisfying film, despite the occasional contrivance. It provides a deeply empathetic yet unblinking view of sisterhood — yes, and motherhood — that is not easily forgotten.