It’s sadly fitting that Moshe Mizrahi’s death made few headlines. Despite being the only Israeli director ever to win an Oscar, he was rarely celebrated in his homeland and remained a perpetual outsider, shunned by the country’s mainstream. It’s a pity: Few were the filmmakers who were more sensitive and warm than Mizrahi, whose work, often featuring strong female protagonists, was as lyrical as it was moving.
He was born in Alexandria in 1931, and even though he lost his father at an early age, he often spoke fondly of his childhood, noting the city’s diverse population and its plethora of cultures all blending together. When he was 15, however, his family was forced to flee Egypt and move to Palestine. Two years later, when Israel declared its independence and found itself at war with its neighbors, Mizrahi’s 9-year-old brother was killed in an air raid launched by the Egyptian air force. Due to the large number of casualties, the local cemetery could spare no undertakers to dig a grave for the young boy, and Mizrahi and his uncle had to do it themselves. Scarred, he decamped for a kibbutz, where he became an ardent communist.
Restless, he applied for a position with the Jewish Agency, and was sent to Paris in 1950. Many years later, he told an interviewer that he was approached by the Mossad, who hoped to train him and send him back to Egypt as a spy. While he was waiting for his fake passport, he said, he spent his days in the local movie theaters, and fell madly in love with the art form. He began writing film criticism, and set his sights on directing.
He got his shot in 1970, with The Customer of the Off Season, a psychological drama about a commander of a French concentration camp that escapes to Israel, falls in love with a Yemenite Jewish woman, and spends his life running a small inn down south. One day, a French Jewish tourist arrives at the hotel, prompting the former officer to wonder if the man had once been his prisoner. Terrified to have his cover blown, the officer descends into murderous madness. The film was well received, and was nominated for several prestigious awards, including the Golden Globe.
A second film wasn’t as successful, and Mizrahi spent many afternoons sitting in a coffee shop across the street from two movie theaters and noticing how longer the lines were at the one not showing his film. Contemplating his next move, he decided it was time to go back to Israel and tell the stories he had always wanted to tell. For the most part, these stories were about women like his mother, resourceful and courageous and forced to provide for their families by themselves. In 1972’s I Love You, Rosa, he told a story about a young widow bound by tradition to marry her late husband’s brother; because the boy is still young, however, she ends up teaching him how to become a respectful partner, and they end up forming a partnership that defies the confines of their patriarchal, religious society. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Mizrahi’s follow-up, The House in Chelouche Street, based largely on the life of the director’s mother. In 1977, he finally won the award with Madame Rosa, based on the novel The Life Before Us by Romain Gary.
Israelis, however, were not impressed. Not only was Mizrahi’s Oscar-winning film French and therefore foreign, but the director’s work was out of step with the popular Israeli cinema of the time. Known as “bourekas films,” these crowd-pleasers featured over-the-top plots and often made fun of Jews who hailed from Arab countries. This soft bigotry infuriated Mizrahi, who continued to regard himself as an outsider even while living and working in Israel. That feeling guided his 1986 film, Every Time We Say Goodbye, with Tom Hanks as a non-Jewish American pilot volunteering with the British air force during World War II who is stationed in Jerusalem and falls in love with a Jewish girl.
Unrequited love was the metatheme of Mizrahi’s own career. He continued to direct, but felt himself more and more at odds with the culture in both Israel and France. “I don’t love them,” he said of his fellow filmmakers and critics in Israel, “and they probably feel it. I can’t hide it. They’ve forgotten me in France as well. I don’t love them either, and they, too, feel it. Anyway, if you’ve directed quite a few movies, it’s not that big of a tragedy if you never direct another one.”
Mizrahi passed away last week at the age of 80, leaving behind a wife, a son, and a cinematic legacy very much worthy of a second look.